I was chatting with a friend a while back about table computing, and came up with an interesting idea: progressively disclosing UIs for foldable and unfoldable displays.
We’re currently witnessing a Cambrian explosion in the world of computing gadgets. Gadgets now come in all number of sizes, from wrist-watch sized IPod nanos to wall-sized displays. These different sizes demonstrate a tradeoff between size and suitability for different tasks. Although I happily use my phone/PDA to remind me of appointments and keep my grocery list, I usually surf using a tablet or my laptop — despite its amazing desktop-like web rendering, not having to squint provides a more pleasurable experience. On the flip side, I don’t take the tablet to the supermarket as its size is a hindrance.
So I now have several gadgets of different sizes, and it can be vexing. Keeping them in sync is a pain, especially when your wife wants to know why your recent music purchase hasn’t been synced to her phone to listen on her commute. Oh sure I could keep everything in The Cloud, but I pay enough to my mobile operator as it is, and repeated security breaches at best-of-breed providers are hardly reassuring. And The Cloud only pushes the syncing problem from a per-device problem to a per-application problem — waddya mean your app can’t pull down from my webdav/dropbox/flavour-of-the-moment service?
But with the advent of rollable, scrunchable, foldable display technologies perhaps we can move to a new paradigm. Rather than have multiple devices of different sizes, I propose that we instead have a single device that can adapt to different sizes. For sake of a name, let’s call this a scrunchable UI: a UI that progressively adapts to changes in the visible display area. For example:
- Fold down a table-sized display into a wallet-sized display to use as you might use a PDA.
- Unfold a PDA-sized display to a 30 cm diagonal rectangle for a nice tablet-sized display.
- Fold a display to a broadsheet size for a newspaper-like experience.
- Boarding a crowded bus? Fold your display for a more compact viewing size, and unfold it again if you get a seat.
UI design for such a world would be quite different — responsive design taken to another level. Rather than design our UIs for particular modalities (available inputs), we’d need to come up with ways to adapt to the modalities that make sense at the moment. For a sense of the problem, try interacting with a large desktop display via VNC on a tablet or PDA — while walking! Fold the display to a small size and the display could be put into a single-application screen mode and the current app would change to being in “mobile” mode with fewer but larger buttons. Unfold the display and the app should progressively show more detail. When a lappable size, perhaps the UI switches to a virtual desktop, showing multiple windows. A fully unfolded display could produce a typical PC desktop-like experience. Where these transitions should occur, and how the software should adapt is sure to provide much merriment for years.