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The Quest for a Functional New Interface for the Smartphone

Fingertips Lab’s iPhone-controlling gadget is a good idea that needs a lot of work.

Fingertips Lab’s O6 is a button and dial for controlling your iPhone without having to touch the screen.

All day, every day I’m surrounded by screens: my smartphone, laptops, tablet, TV, and a video baby monitor, just to name the ones I usually have control over. My eyes—and my brain—get tired from all this display time.

So I was intrigued when I heard about a $99 circular gadget meant for the iPhone that can replace some of this screen-gazing with button pressing. Called O6, it’s like a rubbery, aluminum-ringed Oreo that can be twisted as a dial or pressed.

You connect it to a smartphone via Bluetooth and download a corresponding app to do a handful of things like scroll to hear your iPhone read your new e-mails, Twitter updates, and online stories you’ve saved. You can also answer incoming calls by tapping the center button, and use O6 for some basic controls with other apps like Pandora, Spotify, or Netflix.

If you had a simple gadget with a couple buttons and a dial, what would you want to control with it?

Tell us in the comments.

The company behind O6, Fingertips Lab, fits into a larger shift in human-computer interaction toward finding alternatives to displays, which have proliferated in so many aspects of our lives. Most of the popular options right now are focused on using your voice—think Amazon’s Alexa, Google’s Assistant, and Apple’s Siri—but Fingertips Lab thinks there’s room for a more tactile experience. And since plenty of people still use their phones while driving, Fingertips Lab believes O6 can help there, too, by at least taking your focus off the screen.

In theory, I agree. There’s something comfortable and almost retro about having a small, simple piece of hardware as a controller—something with a few moving parts that makes it so you don’t have to swipe and tap a glass screen.

But the O6 isn’t quite there yet.

I immediately liked the way O6 looks, with its textured, two-toned face, and the dial’s ridges felt nice on my fingers. When I turned the dial, I was charmed by the audible mechanical click, and the inclusion of a strong buzz as feedback for certain actions was quite helpful. I connected it to a clip (the company sells these for $19) and attached it to my daughter’s baby carrier so I could listen to NPR with an earbud in one ear on the walk to daycare; a cool idea, I thought, since I hate holding my phone while holding my baby. Yet in this and subsequent activities with the device, I had a really hard time remembering things like how many taps it took (and on which of the two buttons) to use the dial as a volume adjuster, and whether O6 was in the volume mode or the mode where the dial would act as a “next” button.

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In general I found the dial incredibly sensitive, which could be good but mostly meant I accidentally swiped over NPR news stories or e-mails I wanted to listen to. And while it seemed like a cool idea to use O6 as a camera shutter, I never understood why I had to turn the dial to take a photo, rather than just pressing the center button.

While wearing the clip to listen to music or hear recent tweets, there were several times when O6 had a delayed response to my taps and twists. I’d keep twisting, start pressing some buttons, and then the phone would start beeping and talking in a jumble of unwanted information.  

I took the gadget for a couple test drives in my car, too, with a $19 O6 steering wheel mount that the company also loaned me. Getting the mount on the steering wheel was easy but the experience of using it, frankly, sucked and felt dangerous from the start.

I tried a few different activities, including listening to stories I had saved in Pocket. Several times I accidentally swatted the dial with my palm, making Pocket skip ahead to the next story, and when I made turns with hand-over-hand steering, O6 got in the way. Once, while on the freeway, I tried to turn the dial and the device detached from the mount; at that point I decided it didn’t get to sit on my steering wheel anymore.

I’m not giving up on the idea of a button-like interface for using my smartphone, and I hope Fingertips Lab doesn’t either. We use our smartphones for hours each day—a recent report by market researcher comScore estimated nearly three hours, on average, for adults in the U.S.—so there’s clearly an opportunity for a simple device that makes those interactions less eye-glazing and, perhaps, safer.

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