Home The Physics of iPhone

The Physics of iPhone

Last week we wrote
about Digital Life
– the rise of life-like digital experiences. We argued that online
worlds like Second Life are becoming increasingly more engaging because of their realism.
We noted that Second Life succeeds because it brings to the digital world real economics,
geography and, of course, physics. Last week we also wrote about iPhone and why it might
really matter
. This week we are going to look at iPhone from the perspective of
Digital Life.

Many agree that the iPhone is a breakthrough handheld device. It has many impressive
qualities, but perhaps one of the most interesting ones is that it leverages and even
bends the laws of physics. Apple’s software is tuned to respond to our hand gestures in a
way that makes an impression of interaction with the physical object. Yet, the
interactions are fundamentally digital. Everything feels light and easy because there is
no friction.

It is likely that Apple’s iPhone will be just the beginning of many devices that will
leverage what we will call here Digital Physics – an experience that is rooted in
a real world phenomenon, but also takes advantage of the limitless power of software.

What is Digital Physics?

For people who play video games, Digital Physics is old news. For the rest of us, the
Digital Physics experience is new. The traditional Windows desktop of the nineties never
delivered life-like experiences. Instead, users where forced to learn to interact with
computers by learning new gestures, via mice and keyboard. The modern interface from
Apple changed that paradigm somewhat, by introducing digital interfaces that responded to
mouse clicks. iPhone takes this experience to a whole new level, letting us interact with
digital information using our hands.

The experience that Apple created in iPhone is Digital Physics. The primary
characteristic of it is realism, because the interactions feel real. However the
experience is not exactly like a physical world experience. Instead, it is a lighter,
frictionless sort of interaction. Because it is frictionless, it is also faster. With a
single motion it is possible to move a “mountain” of digital data.

The key point about Digital Physics is that it’s intuitive; it does not to make the
user work hard. The goal is to have an interface that is obvious. For decades we
struggled with software that surprised us, because it behaved nothing like we would
expect it to. The software that follows the laws of Digital Physics does not have this
problem. It is simple to use, because it leverages the metaphors that we use every day in
our real life.

How does Digital Physics work?

When you encounter Digital Physics in software, it seems magical at first. In fact,
the magic is done by mimicking real life. The life-like behavior of software in devices
like the iPhone is created by plugging in formulas from real physics. For example, you
can apply gravity and viscosity formulas to create a very realistic motion.

Back in the late nineties I worked at a visualization company called Thinkmap, which was one of the first companies to
apply Digital Physics methods to information visualization. Their flagship product is
called Visual Thesaurus, which even today
remains one of the best examples of life-like interactive experiences online. The motion
in all Thinkmap software works by creatively combining physical forces. The animation is
produced by continuously recalculating the current impact that forces have on each
Thinkmap node.

Digital Physics in iPhone

It is very likely that engineers at Apple are also being inspired by how things work
in nature. In this first version of iPhone, we already see a set of interesting examples
of Digital Physics:


This is likely to become the most identified
gesture in the iPhone. By putting their finger down on the device and performing a light
downward rub, a user can scroll through contacts lists, emails and album covers. The
motion has a distinct realistic quality, as the objects first accelerate and then
decelerate. The motion is rapid, yet not hard on the eyes and obviously was nurtured to
perfection by Apple’s engineers.


The slide is the same gesture as the scroll, but the
effect on the digital object is different. Sliding lets iPhone users control the volume
of the unit, or frame in a YouTube clip and other movies. The slider response with just
the right amount of resistance, making it a pleasure to use.


Zooming on the iPhone is done via two different gestures –
pinching and double-tapping. While the double-tap is certainly simple and easy to master,
even for people who can’t double click, pinching is what steals the show. The user can
place two fingers on the device at the same time and perform a reverse pinch to zoom in.
This is really slick and, more importantly, intuitive.

There are many other elements of the iPhone user interface that creatively combine the
physical and digital. For example, all buttons on the home screen look like real buttons.
This effect is achieved by having a black background and reflective surface look. The
editors automatically pop-up a magnifying glass when you are trying to insert text. By
default, the keyboards makes sounds that resemble physical keyboards (although I turned
this off quickly!). There are so many little things, design solutions and nuances that
focus on the parallels between the digital and physical, that you will be discovering
them for months.


The iPhone is not only a breakthrough handheld device, it is a device that brings a
mesh of digital and physical to the masses. Apple achieved it by turning a phone (and
ipod, video player and more) into software that creates a life-like experience, but also
adds a digital lightness and playfulness. It is likely that we are going to see more
devices that let us interact with information in this way. How does it suit you? If you
have played with an iPhone, please let us know what you think. What other Digital Physics
experiences in the iPhone did you find compelling?

Zooming pic: magerleagues

Disclaimer: Alex Iskold is a shareholder of the Thinkmap, Inc.

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