A research team from MIT’s Tangible Media Group has developed InForm, a dynamic shape display that can shape shift to render 3D content physically.
The surface is made up of around 1000 pins — long, vertically assembled square sticks arranged in a square grid. In many ways, it works like one of those executive pin toys that allow the user to imprint shapes onto a surface made out of hundreds of pins. Each pin can be moved up and down individually by actuators to create a topographical rendering of an object — it might be a city plan, a data visualisation or simply the outline of someone’s hands. The physical form of the surface can be augmented with mapped projections, thanks to an overhead Kinect and projector.
The shape-changing graphical user interface has been created by Daniel Leithinger and Sean Follmer, under the guidance of Hiroshi Ishii.
The researchers demonstrate a number of applications for the surface, including turning the surface into an interactive surface — with buttons emerging on demand — and making the surface recreate any 3D object shown to a Kinect, for example a user’s hands are shown as pixelated, Lego-like appendages. Similarly the surface can be made to detect and interact with physical objects placed on it by altering its geometry. So, for example, you might place a ball on top of the surface and the pins will assemble into a ramp to move the ball or create a wall around the ball to contain it.
InForm works particularly well for presenting geospatial data such as maps and architectural models. “Urban planners and Architects can view 3D designs physically and better understand, share and discuss their designs,” explains the team on a microsite about the technology.
Another application demonstrated by the team is theMarble Answering Machine (designed by Durrell Bishop), a tangible interface for receiving, storing and playing back voice messages, which are represented as physical marbles. Marbles are stored at the top of a little “hill” created by the interface. When the person receives a message, a marble is manipulated by the pins and moved into a small “well” at the bottom of the slope. To listen to the message, users pick up the marble from the new message well and place it inside a separate “play” well. Once played, the machine moves into the “old message” well. It can be deleted by being deposited back at the top of the hill.
“Shape displays allow for new ways to create physical interfaces, beyond functionality alone. Aesthetic form is an important part of many of the devices and objects that we interact with on a daily basis. Shape displays begin to let interface designers create radically different physical forms for different applications. The Marble Answering Machine example points towards this type of use, where form is more than functional; it is also evocative and emotional. This introduces an opportunity for physical motion design,” explain researchers in their paper about InForm.