Digital Touch

Graphic Jayde Norström

Touching something from miles away is now not only a possibility, but a reality.

Daniel Leithinger and Sean Follmer of MIT’s Tangible Media Group recently unveiled their intriguing new invention, “inForm,” a dynamic shape display that allows users to interact remotely with digital information in a tangible manner.

The interface also allows end-users to bring digital 3D content, such as bar charts, instantly to life, giving digital information a physical form by rendering it atop of inForm’s surface, a table top with 900 built-in pins which modulate to any desired length. These pins can be manipulated manually by hand like clay using the camera sensor of a Microsoft Kinect.

Guided by Professor Hiroshi Ishii, one of the pioneers of tangible user interfaces and leader and founder of Tangible Media Group, Leithinger and Follmer, both PhD students at MIT’s Media Lab, developed inForm as a medium to communicate Tangible Media Group’s vision for radical atoms. They describe it on their website as “the future material that can transform their shape, conform to constraints, and inform the users of their affordances.”

Radical atoms, according to Tangible Media Group, “Is a vision for the future of human-material interaction, in which all digital information has a physical manifestation so that we can interact directly with it.”
Leithinger says it originally came as a surprise when they finally made inForm function so effectively.

“I had built a previous version, called Relief, a while ago; so we knew what to expect to some extent,” he said.

“However, when first rendering and animating objects on the table, we were surprised how well they came together […] the difference [compared] to Relief was quite big.

“We were also surprised about the interaction of the pins with objects on top of them,” he continued.

“While we anticipated that it was possible to roll a sphere, we only started experimenting with more complex objects once we built it. Handling objects from a distance by using Kinect depth information was something we tried as a quick hack and it turned out to be more engaging than we thought.”

Leithinger said the group has already been approached by companies with suggestions and ideas of how to put inForm on the market, but added that “at this point we try to make clear that we see this project as a research platform, not a commercial product. Turning it into a consumer product would be a whole different task.”

In their demo published on YouTube on Nov. 12, Leithinger is shown rendering colourful 3D bar charts produced on a tablet onto inForm’s pin surface. He then manipulates them by hand to demonstrate what happens to the rest of the bars when some bars decrease.

The demo also shows how inForm can be used for simulations in architecture and urban planning, and how it can enable users to explore mathematical concepts by representing expressions and equations in physical form.

Weighing inForm’s Impact on Human Interaction and Lifestyle

With the power to improve the way business-to-business sales people hold demos, professionals provide online training, and the way business executives hold videoconferences, the possibilities of inForm are extensive—but what will be inForm’s and its successors’ impact on the porn industry of the future as this technology becomes more widely adopted?

“An interesting question—that we will let other researchers explore—as we don’t want to compromise the reputation of MIT as an institution of higher education,” replied Leithinger when Fast and Company magazine writer John Brownlee asked him about it during their recent live chat regarding inForm.

And what about what this technology means to us as human beings?

Canadian media theorist Marshall McLuhan wrote over 60 years ago that new media technology turns the world into a “Global Village,” making us more connected than ever in the modern era. These technologies also change the way we interact with one another, possibly making a lot of people more distant from each other in the real world.

For Nathalie Azoulay, president of Eye-In Media, a Montreal-based technology and marketing company that specializes in digital signage and Wi-Fi technologies, “technology is always good—it all depends on how it is used.”

“The more we create technologies that put people in contact without being in the same room, and the more we allow simulations that try to represent the reality, the more we lose the human contact, the human interaction in a real environment, and the human instinct that differentiates us from machines,” she explained.

“I think that this is extremely dangerous. If we tend to only use those types of technologies, we will lose the beauty of being human.”

As for Leithinger, he admits he isn’t sure whether inForm will lead us to be more disconnected from one another.

“This is a very big question and I am not really sure how to answer it,” he said.

“What you are describing is the status quo and I can’t say how a new interface like inForm will change it.”

Instead, Leithinger is focusing on the potential positives of the display.

“I hope that on a simple level, it might have a positive effect similar to how the [Nintendo Wii] remote and [Kinect motion sensor] have changed console gaming. While I don’t play more video games because of them, when I play I engage with the people around me and get somewhat of a workout,” Leithinger said.

“I have no idea if shape displays will consume more of our time, but I do hope that the time spent with them will be healthier and more engaging than the current computing experience.”