Oct 6, 2018

The robot fingers are coming

One way to stand out from the masses, as they hold identical, slab-like smartphones made of glass and metal, is to stick a robotic index finger to the bottom of your phone.

What's going on: Researchers are always looking for new ways of interacting with the machines we surround ourselves with. Some are useful, like pressure-sensitive styluses for digital illustration. Others are, well, creepy.

The finger idea comes from a team of Parisian researchers, who will present their research at a conference later this month.

  • The appendage, MobiLimb, is meant to improve on the "static, passive, motionless" character of today's mobile devices, according to the authors’ paper.
  • MobiLimb can complement what’s happening on the smartphone screen, for example by wiggling when a notification comes in, or by stroking the user’s hand or wrist when he or she receives a smiley emoji from a friend.
  • It can even claw at the table to move itself, and the attached smartphone, around.

Something about the digit — particularly when it’s covered in realistic-looking human skin — is profoundly unsettling.

  • It may be stuck in the "uncanny valley," a concept used to describe revulsion at things that look almost human — but not quite.
  • The finger’s weird motions — viewable in this video from the authors — reminded me of a snake-like charger that Tesla previewed in 2015, which drew horrified reactions.
  • It’s not entirely clear whether the phone finger is a serious proposal, an academic thought experiment, or an elaborate joke.

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