The future of computing is tactile. That’s the reasoning behind the inFORM interface, a revolutionary new interface produced by the MIT Media Lab and the Tangible Media Group. Unveiled earlier this month, the inFORM is basically a surface that changes shapes in three-dimensions, allowing users to not only interact with digital content, but even make simulated physical contact with other people.
Created by Daniel Leithinger and Sean Follmer and overseen by Professor Hiroshi Ishii, the technology behind the inFORM isn’t actually quite simple. Basically, it functions like a fancy Pinscreen, one of those executive desk toys that allows you to create a rough 3-D model of an object by simply pressing it into a bed of flattened pins.
However, with the inFORM, each of those “pins” is connected to a motor controlled by a nearby laptop. This not only moves the pins to render digital content physically, but can also register real-life objects interacting with its surface thanks to the sensors of a hacked Microsoft Kinect. In short, you can touch hands with someone via Skype, or feel a stretch of terrain through Google Maps.
Another possible application comes in the form of video conferencing, where remote participants can be displayed physically, allowing for a strong sense of presence and the ability to interact physically at a distance. However, Tangible Media Group sees the inFORM as merely a step along the long road towards what they refer to “Tangible Bits”, or a Tangible User Interface (TUI).
This concept is what the group sees as the physical embodiment of digital information & computation. This constitutes a move away from the current paradigm of “Painted Bits”, or Graphical User Interfaces (GUI), something that is based on intangible pixels that do not engage users fully. As TMG states on their website:
Humans have evolved a heightened ability to sense and manipulate the physical world, yet the GUI based on intangible pixels takes little advantage of this capacity. The TUI builds upon our dexterity by embodying digital information in physical space. TUIs expand the affordances of physical objects, surfaces, and spaces so they can support direct engagement with the digital world.
It also represents a step on the long road towards what TMG refers to as “Radical Atoms”. One of the main constraints with TUI’s, according to Professor Ishii and his associates, is their limited ability to change the form or properties of physical objects in real time. This constraint can make the physical state of TUIs inconsistent with the underlying digital models.
Radical Atoms, a vision which the group unveiled last year, looks to the far future where materials can change form and appearance dynamically, becoming as reconfigurable as pixels on a screen. By bidirectionally coupling this material with an underlying digital model, dynamic changes in digital states would be reflected in tangible matter in real time, and vice versa.
This futuristic paradigm is something that could be referred to as a “Material User Interface (MUI).” In all likelihood, it would involve polymers or biomaterials that are embedded with nanoscopic wires, that are able to change shape with the application of tiny amounts of current. Or, more boldy, materials that are composed of utility fogs or swarms of coordinated nanorobots that can alter their shape at will.
Certainly the ambitious concept, but as the inFORM demonstrates, its something that is getting closer. And the rate at which it is getting here is growing faster every day. And you have to admit, though the full-scale model does look a little bit like a loom, it does make for a pretty impressive show. And in the meantime, be sure to enjoy this video of the inFORM in action.