It looks a little like a ‘pin art’ executive toy – lots of independently moving sticks creating a 3D image in relief – but this table-top technology might be the future of user interfaces as we move from GUIs (Graphical User Interfaces) to TUIs (Tangible User Interfaces).
The video above demonstrates how the prototype, known as inFORM and developed by a team at MIT Media Lab led by Professor Hiroshi Ishii. It scans 3D data from a set area and then replicates it remotely with a 30x30 grid of polystyrene pins.
The motive behind the project is to transform user interfaces by utilising a “rich variety of physical forms” - it sounds like a simple enough goal but the potential applications are vast.
The mechanical forces created by inFORM can be used to manipulate objects remotely as seen in the video, but it could also create physical interfaces that reshape themselves in reaction to users.
Imagine a desktop interface controlling the music in your house. Hit a toggle on the side and a whole array of music controls rises from the table; press the triangular-shaped play button and it transforms into a square-shaped stop button.
You might then place your personal computer on the table, triggering the desk to recognise its presence, lowering the music controls and then projecting a touch-screen interface that links with your computer’s files.
Current demonstrations prototyped by the team include a 3D ‘painting’ tool (above left) with a special brush that can raise and lower voxels (volumetric pixels) and a ‘marble answering machine’ (above right) that creates a raised hill that ejects marbles representing messages. These then roll down the hill and can then be moved to different recesses in the interface to play, delete or respond to them.
The ‘resolution’ of the inFORM prototype is currently quite basic (think about how thick the blocks are, and imagine if they were needle thin - it would offer a far greater degree of control) but current technology can already detect users’ touches, offer haptic feedback, and overlay the interface with a screen.
Tangible User Interface technology is currently in its infancy, but it could be an extremely powerful force in the future. As the team behind inFORM describe in a paper, such technology goes “beyond functionality alone” it also has the power to delight, bringing and emotive element back to our lives with computers.