All of that Minority Report magic sounds great at first. Screens in your eyeballs! Virtual objects to grab and toss across the room! That is, until you actually reach out to try to touch those pixels and realize there’s nothing there. The beautiful illusion is broken.
Interface designers are trying to solve this divide between the virtual world and real one, with sci fi-forward inventions like muscle stimulating gloves and puffs of air that simulate objects. But another promising solution hails from the Smart Systems Institute at the University of Singapore. And it’s really just a joystick. A joystick that you can use in midair.
Called the Bottomless Joystick, it’s a handle attached to a gimbal. As you move the stick in midair, a counterweight plants itself vertically, anchoring the stick perpendicular to the ground, no matter how you twist or swing it.
Things get more complex from there. Two sticks can be used at once (think ski poles or rowing a boat). The resistance of internal motors can be tweaked by software, to make twisting each stick feel easier or more difficult. they can vibrate, to offer the sensation of firing a gun (so necessary for game controllers!). And each stick can even be flipped upside down, allowing you to hold an object upright from any angle. What would you do with such a thing? The example researchers offer is an umbrella that always remains at the perfect height over your head. Would an umbrella be all that useful in VR or AR, on something like an HTC Vive or Microsoft Hololens? No. Researchers told us that part was just a joke. But the project seems to be thinking about its purpose in the real world all the same.
In fact, the Bottomless Joystick is less an idea about controlling any one type of display we might see in the future, and more a concept that’s reacting to something else: Mobile phones have reimagined the plugged-in desktop workstation as an entity that lives in our pocket. Hololens will even move it to our eyes. But all that mobility doesn’t always equate to accessibility. Just because we have the internet and apps on our body doesn’t mean it’s something we can touch. And we’ll want to touch it, especially as we bring the digital world into physical space.
“I cook, clean, assemble things, climb mountains, play instruments, ride a motorcycle,” writes researcher Yuichiro Katsumoto. “How can computers participate in these top-notch activities?”
Put another way: Is an iPhone’s touchscreen really how you’d want to read directions while hiking, or recipes while cooking? Of course not.
Which is why the Bottomless Joystick is imagined as a mouse of tomorrow. It’s an early exploration of a controller we could carry around with us in our lives to fit its more extreme ergonomic cases. Katsumoto tells us that he imagines its most immediate uses to found at construction job sites controlling machinery, or as a handy way for pilots to fly drones. And who knows, maybe such technology has a place in your kitchen or on a hike, too.
Because as bits float visibly or invisibly through the air across our lives, our human hands will still need a way to touch them.