Palette buttons can be re-arranged and customized by the user.
As any artist, designer or technologist will tell you, we rely on a wide variety of software in our day to day lives, from the Adobe Creative Suite to some sort of office bundle, as well as music and movie editing software. Each of these programs has custom controls on the software side, but on the hardware side we have the same set of tools: a keyboard and a mouse.
And while the multiple buttons of a keyboard are endlessly adaptable, that same sort of logic doesn't apply in other interactive environments. Think, for instance, about the vast difference between driving a car and riding a motorcycle, or playing a video game on Playstation vs. operating a remote control for a television. Although the input devices and mechanisms share some obvious, similarities, the hardware experience varies substantially.
Which is why I was excited to learn about Palette, a "freeform controller" made of movable, interchangeable parts. Starting with the building blocks of buttons, dials and sliders, Palette allows users to create custom controllers based on how they want to interact with the computer.
The minimal aesthetic belies the original inspiration behind Palette. "Looking back at old transistor radios and war era type machines," noted CEO Calvin Chu, who observed that these devices were "really robust." "Why not make a way that even with all these different use cases, we could abstract these elements and rearrange them in different ways, just like Lego blocks?"
Early prototypes of Palette—starting with paper.
Chu and co-founder Ashish Bidadi, who leads software development, started prototyping with paper cubes and then moved on to a working prototype designed for a tray. "A lot of the feedback was, 'why is this thing fixed in this four by four grid?'" Chu reflected. "They just want something really small, like two buttons."
They eventually arrived at the current incarnation, which they took to the next level during a residency with the hardware accelerator program HAXLR8R, which I wrote about earlier. With a successful round of funding on Kickstarter, they're eager to produce the devices and start shipping them. In that regard, they're an example of the emergent, globalized model for small-scale hardware design, which allows a two-person team to benefit from the create a product from concept to production to shipping with minimal overhead—and a few trips to China.
Some of the team's research involved exploring Shenzhen's many hardware offerings and pressing people's buttons—literally.
"A lot of people we've worked with in Shenzhen [where HAXLR8R brings it designers] and China have been eager and welcome new businesses," explained Chu of the doors that HAXLR8R has opened for his business. "I think Shenzhen is the best place to make stuff with supply chain expertise. Being at the heart of it has tons of benefits."
Focusing on hardware interactions in an era of touchscreens may seem counterintuitive at first, but the tactility of Palette is almost certainly one of its strengths. While we tap and swipe on our phones, there's still something nice about the physicality of buttons and dials. Chu, for instance, has created a custom Skype interface for his grandmother, so she can more easily make calls without having to deal with the full keyboard. Other ideas include a gaming interface for Starcraft or even the fine-grained controls for nanotweezers.
"Our fingertips are some of the most sensitive parts of our body," reflected Chu. "A lot of information is lost when it's all behind a cold glass touchscreen." Soon, he and Bidadi plan to release other parts, like joysticks, trackballs and even foot pedals. "One of the most exciting things is when we show our prototypes to people and get them to play around with it. Every person has a new crazy use case that we never thought of."