Setting out to counter the current trend towards dematerialized digital representation, a team of MIT researchers has developed technology that enables physical reconfiguration of objects.

inFORM materializes captured 3D data and movements

In a research project unveiled this week, the MIT Media Lab has reinvented the digital user interface (UI) by adding back the physical dimension into remote interactions. Developed by a team from the Radical Atoms group, which is working on developing dynamic materials that can be reconfigured through digital control, the inFORM Dynamic Shape Displayenables a user to control, and interact with, digital information in a tangible way. Drawing inspiration from Microsoft’s Kinect technology, the MIT research team has developed a modular surface that is controlled by 3D imagery. This technological advance could point the way to UIs that will in future not just consist of pixels but exist in a total spatial context, i.e. both physical and temporal.

Physical transcription of 3D digital data

MIT’sMedia Labresearchers have combined a number of existing technologies in order to bring to life the objects and movements captured by a computer. The system developed by the team uses a board-like console consisting of 900 ‘actuators’ connected to rods or pins with the Microsoft Kinect. Two Kinect cameras are used – one Kinect is mounted in a remote location to capture the remote user’s activity, for example leafing through a book. The remote Kinect is mounted on the ceiling and captures the depth image and a 2D color image of the user's hands or any other objects placed under it. This captured data is sent over the network to the inFORM surface, which renders it physically using a set of pins on the console. A projector above the inFORM projects the color image of the remote user's hands onto the rendered shape. The second Kinect is mounted above the inFORM surface, next to the projector, and allows users collocated with the inFORM display to interact with it through gestures and hand-movements. inFORM, basically an infinitely malleable table-console, is still far too costly to be envisaged as a commercial  venture in the near future. However its core technology holds out promise for a number of industries and services.

Time for a re-think on interfaces?

Aside from the more obvious gaming applications, inFORM has the potential to pioneer new types of interfaces, going against the tide of digital progress which up to now has meant a non-stop drive towards dematerialization. According to Daniel Leithinger, one of the heads of the Tangible Media Group, the lab behind the project, and co-creator of the technology, this relentless dematerialization poses many problems, especially in the process of designing and developing physical objects. Our digital 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. However, “as humans, we’ve evolved by interacting physically with our environment, 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,” points out Sean Follmer, one of the creators of the technology. Countering this trend, inFORM could well enable the development of a new generation of ‘supermorphic’ interfaces, “growing the affordances they need on the fly.”Meanwhile, the lab is collaborating with the urban planners in the Changing Places group at MIT to help them to better visualize and share their spatial planning projects.

By Thomas Meyer
Journalist, Business Analyst