MIT Invents Screen That Lets You Reach Through And Touch Things

By Ben Wolford on November 14, 2013 3:48 PM EST

MIT has invented a tactile display that lets you touch things on the other side.
MIT has invented a tactile display that lets you touch things on the other side.

There's a new kind of touch-screen display created by MIT that lets users reach through the screen and interact with physical objects on the other side.

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They call it inFORM. Unveiled this week, the device employs 900 plastic pegs on a square grid that can be raised or lowered to form shapes. A depth camera tracks the shape and movement of the input (your hand, your dog... whatever) and displays it with the pegs.

You've heard of liquid crystal displays, or LCDs. Well, this is a Dynamic Shape Display. To MIT, it's not a far-flung species of the TV and iPhone displays we're used to. Rather, to them, it's the future of the way we interact with screens. So they've created a team of researchers led by Hiroshi Ishii called the Tangible Media Group to pave the way for the next generation of information technology.

They explain their vision like this: "Humans have evolved a heightened ability to sense and manipulate the physical world, yet the [graphical user interface] based on intangible pixels takes little advantage of this capacity. The [tangible user interface] builds upon our dexterity by embodying digital information in physical space."

This video explains the way it works way better than mere words:

Obviously the inFORM has limitations. In the pictures, the table around the peg field hides the bulky mechanics underneath. (The developers call the pegs "pins," a word that evokes — remember these things? — the pinscreen.) Beneath the tangible display, there's a whole jungle of wires and "actuators," little motors that hoist the pegs. You can't exactly fit the technology into a smartphone.

But you could fit it on your desktop, or in front of your television. Sean Follimer, one of the developers along with Daniel Leithinger, told Co.Design that the genre of tactile technology has been rapidly going into production, particularly in video games.

"Ten years ago, we had people at Media Lab working on gestural interactions, and now they're everywhere, from the Microsoft Kinect to the Nintendo Wiimote," Follmer said. "Whatever it ends up looking like, the UI of the future won't be made of just pixels, but time and form as well. And that future is only five or 10 years away. It's time for designers to start thinking about what that means now." 

They say that with the emergence of touch-screen displays, like the ones on tablets and smartphones, our IT design isn't taking advantage of powerful types of interaction: grasping, touching, pushing, turning.

In their paper, published concurrently with the demonstration of the inFORM, they write that previous research on tactile, three-dimensional displays has been limited to interaction with a static shape (think Wii controller). They say their tinkering has produced some of the first important advances in "dynamically changing" user interfaces.

"We like to think of ourselves as imagining the futures, plural," Follmer tells Co.Design. "The inFORM is a look at one of them." 

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