PattenStudio Plans To Make Touchscreens More Tactile With Tiny Robots Called Thumbles

I can't say I'm a fan of touchscreens. While they're certainly compact, convenient, and easy to use - I won't argue any of those points - the lack of tactile feedback when using them makes tasks like typing and controlling a mobile game feel like more of a chore than something simple and intuitive. I've more than once found myself wishing I had a real keyboard as opposed to the sad imitation popping up on my screen.

I'm sure at least a few of you are in the same boat as I. In a sense, I feel like the issue we have with touchscreens isn't too far removed from the problem a lot of folks (myself included) have with products like the Kindle: holding a tablet simply doesn't feel the same as turning the page of a book. It's simply less satisfying.

A design firm known as Patten Studio has stepped forward with an experimental interface it hopes will be the answer to these woes (at least partially, anyway). It's called Thumbles, and it's basically a touchscreen with a bunch of tiny little omnidirectional robots running around on it. By grabbing and dragging one of these robots around, users can experience a whole new realm of interactivity.

Some of you are probably wondering what the big deal is. What makes Thumbles anything more than a touchscreen with a few glorified styluses? Simple: the robots are capable of autonomous motion under the command of a computer, and are designed to move quickly and easily in any direction necessary. 

Because of this, they can dynamically rearrange themselves in order to suit a user's needs. Maybe they'll position themselves to serve as analog joysticks for a video game, or molecules in a chemistry simulation. Maybe they'll provide the user with force feedback, resisting attempts to move them around. Maybe they'll represent knobs, levers, or sliders. Whatever the case, they'll add a new dimension of interactivity and physicality to the use of a touchscreen. 

Awesome, right?

According to Patten Studio, the applications of their technology go far beyond gaming. The little robots could, for example, be used for data visualization and organizational logistics; each robot could serve as a single node on a chart or a single link in a supply chain. Other uses include (but certainly aren't limited to) video and audio editing, the control of mechanical systems, or even simple web browsing. 

Me, I'm sort of drooling over how these nifty little machines could be put to use as characters in a virtual tabletop game. Maybe at some point in the future, some enterprising inventor could tweak them so that they emit little holographic avatars above them? Admit it - playing D&D (or any similar game) with Thumbles would be a pretty incredible experience. 

Although touchscreens are both portable and easy to use, they most definitely aren't perfect. The lack of feedback is for many - myself included - a bit of a dealbreaker, and many of us long for a time when physical controls were more dominant. Thumbles hearkens back to such a time, and might be the first step towards a more physical, tactile interface on smartphones and tablets.