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One problem with the 3D design is: it looks really silly when viewed from upside down. This is not a problem on desktops, but on tablets and phones it can be.

Having a fixed "light position" at top / top-left isn't the only way of getting a mild sunk / popped effect. Using internal and external shadows can get much of the same effect in a way that doesn't have a fixed direction.

Good point. But external shadows pose a problem: pixels outside the original bounding box of the element need to be painted, and may overlap with other elements.

Wonder if it would be plausible having light sensors on a tablet and base shadows on the room's available light?

Having a table flat on a surface and have UI "shadows" move around with light changes would likely be a pretty immersive effect.

Definitely believe Apple had been exploring sensor driven UI effects if you follow the signs like this patent [0]. Wouldn't have been shocked if they'd had a prototype with the whole UI doing it around iOS 4/5. But only the Music.app volume knob part shipped (iOS 4 IIRC the brushed metal on the knob had a tilt based lighting effect).

[0] http://www.google.com.pg/patents/US8130237

Immersive but also very battery draining...

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