I have an embarrassing admission to make: when the first Apple iPhone was announced, I never thought it would be successful. I would loudly proclaim to anyone who would listen that consumers would never give up the tactility of physical buttons in favor of a large touchscreen. Of course, I couldn’t have been more wrong. Now it’s nearly impossible to find a smartphone that has a keyboard — most don’t have anything other than power and volume buttons. But many of us still miss having physical buttons, and this smartphone case is bringing them back.
This smartphone case was developed by researchers from Columbia University and is designed to provide a customizable array of physical buttons and dials. The back of the case has a number of slots where “Vidget” mechanical modules can be placed. Those can be either simple buttons, or dials that act as scroll wheels. So, for instance, you can have a button for snapping photos, and a scroll wheel for zooming the camera. Each Vidget can be configured to perform whatever function you want, so you can even use the case to create a custom gamepad to make your smartphone gaming experience more enjoyable.
The Vidget system is particularly interesting because it doesn’t require any kind of wireless connection to your phone, or even a wired connection. In fact, the case doesn’t need any power at all. Instead, the button presses are detected by your phone’s built in IMU (Inertial Measurement Unit). That’s the sensor that your phone uses to monitor how much it’s moved around. When a Vidget button is pressed, it creates a tiny, but distinct, vibration that is picked up by the IMU. It’s even sensitive enough to know which button is being pressed. This case is just a prototype for now, but it would be easy to bring it to market.