The Future is Here: inFORM Tangible Media Interface

tangible_mediaThe 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.

tangible_media3However, 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).

tangible_media4This 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.

tangible_media1Radical 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.

inFORM45This 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.


The Future is… Foggy!

utility_fogIt’s called a Utility Fog, swarms of networked microscopic robots that can assume the shape and texture of virtually anything. Originally proposed by J. Storrs Hall, a speculative science writer back in 1993, the concept has gone on to inspired futurists and science fiction writers for years. These include Warren Ellis’s foglets in Transmetropolitan and Neal Stephenson’s personal nanodefense systems in The Diamond Age, among others.

As an extension of the nanotechnological principle – where microscopic machines are able to self-replicate and construct just about anything – the Utility Fog idea goes a step further by proposing that we have a series of robots linked, arm and arm, to form a solid mass that can assume the shape of anything we need. Another term that is often used is “Smart Matter”, because it entails the creation of materials that are capable of responding to input, storing info, and thereby predicting what a users desires.

And since they are composed by tiny robots that could be capable of computing and networking with larger machines, they could even form interfaces that allow us to store information, send emails, or take pictures. Each “foglet” would function as its own discreet computer network, in this model, making sure that separate clouds are discernible and perform different tasks. The possibilities are truly limitless, and though it may be a few decades away at this point (by liberal estimates), we can only imagine how it will alter our daily lives.

During a recent interview with IO9, Hall reminisced about how he first came up with the idea:

“I came up with this vision of form fitting foam — one that could take on the shape of anything inside it and on the fly, which got me to wondering if we could ever possibly build something like that.”

The answer, according to Hall, came to him by considering the nascent field of molecular nanotechnology. By designing and creating objects at the molecular scale, Hall envisioned a fog that could quickly morph along with the movements of anything around it — including the passengers of cars. However, the greatest potential, to Hall lies in the creation of virtual environments. In truth, there could come a day when utility fogs will blend seamlessly with the real and virtual worlds, creating a kind of hybrid reality in between.

“You could actually push this technology to the point of creating a virtual world around you. You’d essentially get Star Trek’s holodeck — one that could actually cut you and make you bleed. You could put yourself in a virtual environment where you’re interacting with something that leads to a real environment, and it’s this interface between what’s real and virtual that will prove to be the most important thing about it.”

However, the most radical possibility could be in the field of clinical immortality. Amongst science fiction writers such as William Gibson, the idea that human beings could upload their minds into constructs and interfaces has been toyed with for some time. However, why upload your mind into a box or some kind of portable hard drive when you could render it seamlessly into the form of a fog?

“You could very realistically imagine uploading into it, and then you’d be this sort of formless data amoeba controlling this formless physical amoeba and take any size or form you wanted.”

Of course, there are limitation to the whole concept, not the least of which is the fact that the constituent components of the technology are still any decades away. For starters, there’s the ability to construct robots on the scale required, then the need to fashion computers that are small enough to fit. Then there’s the software required to program such machines. Hall figures that it could take a team of experts as much as a half decade to come up with the first set of algorithms required for the most basic functions.

“To navigate that hairy interface between the continuous and the discreet — that’s more difficult, the foglets will have to link up hands, let go, walk, crawl, and so forth — it’ll be like a three dimensional square dance.”

But above all, the main issue is one of cost:

“The system will have to be capable of keeping track of any changes to the environment and to keep track of you — and this will require incredibly sophisticated simulation, sensing, and interfacing software and that’s going to be tremendously expensive.”

Not surprising really. At this juncture in time, the greatest leaps in technology that will forever alter the future and make it impossible to predict – to a point anyway – are still highly speculative. But then again, major breakthroughs are being made all the time, and are occurring at a greater and greater pace. Who’s to say when the future will arrive. It never seems to show up on schedule!