Wearable Tech

Are gadgets going to get more fidgety?

Commentary: Will the craze for fidget-spinner toys inspire a rebirth of buttons and moving parts on smartphones and other devices?

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I picked up my first fidget spinner yesterday, and a fidget cube to go with it. I got them from a midtown Manhattan perfume store, $15 cash. The cube is studded in buttons, switches and dials. The spinner is a smoothly gliding triangular wheel. The toys are differently shaped, but they have one thing in common: Their purpose is to give restless fingers something to do.

Fidget spinners are at the center of a trend right now, among kids especially, but adults too. Their popularity seemingly sprang from nowhere, but they're prized for occupying hands and giving focus to people whose nervous energy might otherwise cause them to click pens or twirl their hair or tap their fingers on a tabletop.

My 8-year-old son desperately wants a fidget spinner, even though his class has banned them. My adult friends have ordered their own fidget cubes. What most strikes me about them is how much they remind me of the kinetic toys I collected as a kid in the '80s, like a rocking curved piece of plastic that spun on tables, or bouncing yo-yo-like balls on strings that you could spin in circles.

The elements on today's toys are different, especially on the fidget cube, which is studded with the kinds of buttons I see on the gadgets I review: spinning wheels, like the spinning crown of the Apple Watch, push buttons like on a game controller, a little toggle switch.

It makes me wonder if, after years of electronics shedding their buttons and switches, we've collectively missed the satisfaction you get when feeling gears spin and buttons click. Could a simple category of toy bring them back?

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Nintendo's Joy-Con controller: practically a double-long fidget cube.

Scott Stein/CNET

The return of the fidget feature

For years, it's seemed, gadgets have moved away from physical buttons and switches. The iPhone with its virtual keyboard was a major push toward computing on a slab of glass instead of a physical keyboard. The home button of the newest iPhone is a solid-state piece of glass with click feedback. It doesn't actually physically click anymore (and some other phone-makers have followed suit). The same's true with many click-free trackpads and keyboards as well.

Maybe that will change in a post-fidget-cube-and-spinner world. Or maybe it's already changing. Some of my favorite recent gadget features have been tactile, especially in wearable tech. The spinning Apple Watch digital crown isn't necessary to use the watch, but I find myself spinning it absentmindedly all day long. The AirPods' smoothly snapping magnetic charge case, with magnets that simultaneously repel and attract, is weirdly addictive.

The biggest proof of Fidget Cube As Design is the Nintendo Switch and its Joy-Con controllers. The insanely button-and trigger-studded little wands are so complicated, but they're also perfect. Snapping them in and out of the Switch tablet is satisfying. The Joy-Con controller is, basically, a double-long fidget cube game controller.

Last year, my favorite new smartwatch design was the Samsung Gear S3. Not necessarily because its software was better, but because its clickable spinning dial-wheel, which adjusts watch faces, felt so nice to use.

Microsoft's smooth, multifunction Surface tablets are also pushing into tactile territory. The Surface Dial is really just a big spinning button, and yet I still feel attracted to it.

And BlackBerry, famous for its scroll wheel navigation and miniaturized physical keyboard, is back with a new phone for people who like to press buttons to type. It's the only recent phone with a keyboard.

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The iPhone 7 replaced a real click with a simulated one.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The illusion of fidgeting

I'm not sure that "phantom buttons" like the iPhone 7's solid-state home button, or the MacBook's recent no-click "taptic" clickpad, or the Samsung Galaxy S8's virtual home button that vibrates when you press it, are the perfect solution for me. I accept that we'll see more gadgets substituting vibrating panels for physical moving parts.

But maybe fidget devices will remind gadget designers that tactile engagement matters. People like to touch things. (The problem is that mechanical parts can wear and break.) Or, more likely, these designers already knew that, but they avoid buttons because a smart speaker with six buttons is harder to learn to use than a smart speaker with one.

Or, maybe even more depressingly, I'm starting to wonder if fidget cubes are really just a short-lived fad that expresses my nostalgia for button-pressing. As buttons start to vanish, replaced by voice commands, gestures, smart cameras, brain-wave reading, and increasingly autonomous behavior, will vestigial buttons be our little comfort blankets, our worry stones?

Will I keep my own home button and wheel-studded cube in my own pocket as the world learns to interact with me without any physical buttons at all?

OK, OK, I'm going too far. But I do know that the fidget cube and fidget spinner have inspired some button-pushing fidgeting from me. Now, where'd I put that Nintendo Joy-Con?