You know this scenario all too well: you’re waiting in line for coffee, or for the train that will inevitably be delayed or, realistically, just at dinner with your friends. The analog world fails to amaze you for just a few seconds so you reach, zombie-like, into your pocket and pull out your smartphone.
Most of us do this, and many of us are aware of the habit but can’t seem to stop. (Part of that, to be clear, is out of our control thanks to how many social media platforms are designed to be addictive.)
But what if there was a way to satisfy those now-habitual cravings of using a phone without having to disengage from the world around you?
Meet the Substitute Phone, which true to its name, might just be the solution for society’s smartphone addiction. The plastic, iPhone-shaped object isn’t a phone at all, rather more of a fidget spinner to satisfy our inklings to swipe, zoom and tap.
The “phone” is made from black polyoxymethylene plastic, as The Verge reports, and is blank aside from marble-like beads embedded in the surface. These beads are arranged in patterns meant to simulate some of the ways we use our touch-screen phones like the unlock slide, up and down scroll and zooming, as the creator, Austrian designer Klemens Schillinger, told me via email. The idea is that by manipulating these beads, you could get your swiping, zooming and tapping fix without actually plunging into a virtual abyss.
The product isn’t widely available yet: the first few were made for an exhibition at the Vienna Design Week and cost 200 euros each. But Schillinger told me that after getting requests for the Substitute Phone, he’s considering producing more so that they are more affordable.
It makes sense that people would want a “phone” that lets them do, well, phone-like things without losing minutes (or hours) to Instagram or Facebook. That’s the idea behind the phone too—to give you “a tool that gives you a physical connection and satisfactory feeling,” without being able to “escape into the web,” Schillinger told me.
This isn’t the first product Schillinger has designed to help us reconnect with the world around us: Dezeen reported on an Offline Lamp he created that only lights up once you lock your phone inside. But as to whether the design world at large is following this trend, he told me he wasn’t sure. But, he added, “Getting us off our smartphones for a bit more every day would be good, and I think if design can contribute to that it’s a good thing.”
Obviously, the fact that we need a phone-that’s-not-a-phone to help curb our cravings says a lot about the world today. And it’s sad that many might need this product to be able to actually pay attention to people, places and things. But the fact that I and many others want this object perhaps says more: we’re addicted to our phones, but most of us don’t want it to stay that way.