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Thursday, November 14, 2013

MIT's new display lets you reach through your computer screen - VideoBlog

MIT has demonstrated a "Dynamic Shape Display" that can physically change shape to render 3D content. As Fast Company reports, the display is called inFORM, and it's a large surface that sits atop a series of pins, actuators, and linkages. By moving each actuator, inFORM can move the pin it's attached to up or down, allowing for a wide range of interactions.

A projector mounted above the surface provides context to the shapeshifting pins, giving them color and highlighting depth. In a video released by MIT, the table is shown moving a ball, mirroring a book, displaying 3D charts, and giving an extremely visible smartphone notification.
When used in conjunction with a Kinect sensor, inFORM gets a lot more interesting. The sensor is able to accurately map and interpret the position of 3D objects, and MIT's system uses that data to allow you to move the table's pins with just your hands. This can even work remotely, as demonstrated by the video, which shows an MIT staffer interacting with items via a video conference.

It's also very interested in mapping and terrain models, which could be used by urban planners and architects to better visualize and share 3D designs. The MIT Tangible Media Group, which is responsible for inFORM's creation, says it's currently collaborating with MIT's Changing Places group to explore the possibilities for urban planners.

It's extremely impressive stuff, but it's just one step on a long path to what MIT calls Radical Atoms. First conceptualized over a decade ago, Radical Atoms are what MIT believes will be the future of interactivity. The idea is that we presently interact with computers through graphical user interfaces (GUI), while inFORM and other projects like it offer up a tactile user interface (TUI).

MIT likens TUIs to a digital iceberg: just the tip of the digital content emerges "above water" into the physical realm. Moving past TUIs, the end game is Radical Atoms, a future in which "all digital information has physical manifestation ... as if the iceberg had risen from the depths to reveal its sunken mass."

A Word From Tangible Media Group and M.I.T.

We are currently exploring a number of application domains for the inFORM shape display. One area we are working on is Geospatial data, such as maps, GIS, terrain models and architectural models. Urban planners and Architects can view 3D designs physically and better understand, share and discuss their designs. We are collaborating with the urban planners in the Changing Places group at MIT on this ( In addition, inFORM would allow 3D Modelers and Designers to prototype their 3D designs physically without 3D printing (at a low resolution). Finally, cross sections through Volumetric Data such as medical imaging CT scans can be viewed in 3D physically and interacted with. We would like to explore medical or surgical simulations. We are also very intrigued by the possibilities of remotely manipulating objects on the table.

Past research on shape displays has primarily focused on rendering content and user interface elements through shape output, with less emphasis on dynamically changing UIs. We propose utilizing shape displays in three different ways to mediate interaction: to facilitate by providing dynamic physical affordances through shape change, to restrict by guiding users with dynamic physical constraints, and to manipulate by actuating physical objects. We explore potential interaction techniques and introduce Dynamic Physical Affordances and Constraints with our inFORM system, built on top of a state-of-the-art shape display, which provides for variable stiffness rendering and real-time user input through direct touch and tangible interaction. A set of example applications demonstrates how dynamic affordances, constraints and object actuation can create novel interaction possibilities.

, our devices have been designed to simulate affordances--the quality which allows an object to perform a function, such as a handle, a dial or a wheel--but not actually have them. Follmer says that's not the way it's supposed to be. "As humans, we have evolved to interact physically with our environments, but in the 21st century, we're missing out on all of this tactile sensation that is meant to guide us, limit us, and make us feel more connected," he says. "In the transition to purely digital interfaces, something profound has been lost."

The solution is programmable matter, and the inFORM is one possible interpretation of an interface that can transform itself to physically be whatever it needs to be. It's an interesting (and literal) analogue to skeuomorphism: while in the touch-screen age we have started rejecting interfaces that ape the look of real world affordances as "tacky" in favor of more pure digital UIs, the guys at the Tangible Media Group believe that interface of the future won't be skeuomorphic. They'll be supermorphic, growing the affordances they need on the fly.

Although the inFORM is primarily a sandbox for MIT to experiment with the tactile interfaces to come, it would be wrong to dismiss this project as mere spitballing. "We like to think of ourselves as imagining the futures, plural," Follmer says. "The inFORM is a look at one of them." But while the actual consumer implementation may very well differ, but both Follmer and Leithinger agree that tangible interfaces are coming.

"Ten years ago, we had people at Media Lab working on gestural interactions, and now they're everywhere, from the Microsoft Kinect to the Nintendo Wiimote," says Follmer. "Whatever it ends up looking like, the UI of the future won't be made of just pixels, but time and form as well. And that future is only five or ten years away. It's time for designers to start thinking about what that means now."

Compiled By: Josh Martin

Tangible Media Group

Fast Company

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