Thanks to responsive design, most modern websites (including this one) serve up different versions of themselves depending on what device you’re using to visit them—usually a “full” site designed for browsing on a laptop or desktop, plus a streamlined “mobile” version optimized for small screens. If you’ve ever preferred the latter version of your favorite site to the “real” one, even when you’re not using your phone (hello, Techmeme), you’ll appreciate Glimpse: an experimental add-on for the Chrome Web browser that pops up a little smartphone-sized “mini mobile browser” right inside your desktop browser window.
If Glimpse sounds like a neat-but-not-necessarily-useful product of a hackathon, it is. But Arc90, the New York-based technology consultancy that dreamed Glimpse up, decided to release it into wild anyway, and I’m glad they did. It may not work perfectly for every site you punch in, but it’s an ingenious prototype of a browsing experience I never knew I wanted until I tried it. Glimpse is like picture-in-picture for the Web: a way to keep certain pages or processes visible or easily accessible in the periphery while you do other stuff. If it worked with Twitter, I’d consider it indispensable. (Alas, it doesn’t.)
Mobile-first interaction design has been slowly but surely infiltrating the Web for several years. One standout example is the so-called “hamburger button”: ubiquitous on mobile apps, it now graces the desktop UIs of YouTube and Chrome. But Glimpse represents something more interesting than the trend of rethinking or replacing the desktop Web experience with a mobile-inspired one. Instead, Glimpse simply superimposes the mobile experience on top of the desktop one while leaving both intact.
You wouldn’t think that would make any sense. But mobile interaction design offers useful affordances that go beyond smartphones and tablets—like supporting partial attention, or being quickly scannable. As an info utility, Glimpse is a bit like RSS, but more contained, more humane. If you just want to give yourself a quick hit of gossip blogs without actually reading any of the articles, Glimpse is the perfect interface. But it’s also an interesting glimpse of the new kinds of micro-interactions that can link different technology interfaces together, and make them make more sense than they did alone.