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inFORM – Tangible, Shape-shifting Display Developed by MIT

We live in an era of touchscreen, but have you ever thought about future user interface? Will it still be visional pixels, or become a display interface that you can actually touch and interact with?

MIT Tangible Media Group’s Daniel Leighinger and Sean Follmer believe that future computer display should be touchable. Under the direction of Prof. Hiroshi Ishii, they developed inform – MIT’s new imagination upon future interface. inFORM’s surface can present 3D shape shifting just like clay. Using inFORM, Users can not only interact with files in computer, but also able to shake hands with friends from thousands of miles away.

 MIT Media Lab’s Tangible Media Group offers you a brief glimpse of the power of inFORM.

After watching the video, now you have a basic idea about how the system works. The cubes can’t move themselves like human, instead, they are connected and controlled by the computer near them. They don’t just transform data into entity model, but also, their surface will sink upon pressure. Such design is based on the new generation of Xbox Kinect body motion detecting technology.

In a nutshell, inFORM is more than monitor that can display all kinds of lights and shapes. Imagine when you talk with somebody on Skype, you can play throw and catch ball game, or play clay together, or even give high five with each other. Another application is to modify files that were purely digital. For instance, if we have a 3D model in our computer, we can visualize it through inFORM three-dimensionally, then we can touch and adjust it all by hands. Finally, the modified 3D model can be saved back as digital files.


A “profile” of inFORM.

When the whole world is in love with tangible screens, those traditional, classic knobs, buttons and dials have gradually been disappeared and weed out. Tangible Media Group thinks this is a big problem:” Current software are far better than hardware and rich in variations. So, now we are stuck with screens. Every day we face with a black rectangular and there is not much interactions. This is why Blackberry is gone.” Leighinger noted.

In other words, the current tangible devices just allow us to manipulate the hardware in an analog way instead of actually use them by hands. Follmer thinks it should not be like this:” As human, we evolved to have the ability of interacting with environment entities, however, in 21st century, we are losing the sense of touch that is supposed to be leading us, helping us to feel the environment since we were born. Now since everything is shifted to digital interface, all those subtle feelings are gone.”


Fantastic user interface like those in science-fiction movies.

One of the solution is to write a program based on “substance”. inFORM is a substantial operation interface that can become any substance via the control of programs. In this touching era, we start to use simplified digital interface and reject skeuomorphism interface. For example, a digital notebook with buckles that will be wrapped up when you change pages, is considered to be an antique. Tangible Media Group also believes such skeuomorphism design will not be popular in the future, because the future trend is supermorphic, and developers need to design substances that can rapidly change form and functionalize in various ways.

Although inFORM now only provide tangible interface developing sandbox, one can’t overlook inFORM and regard it as just an interesting idea. “We are imaging all kinds of future possibilities, and inFORM is one in developing and testing.” Although there is still a long way to go before the final product come out and comsumers might expect different forms and applications, Leighinger and Follmer believe that an era of 3D tangible interface is soon coming.

 “Ten years ago, media labs were working on gesture control, and now it is already a popular product such as Microsoft Kinect and Nintendo Wiimote. Thus, no matter what the future user interface looks like, it will no longer be a pixel world, but a world of 3D tangible interface with time and shape shifting. Follmer notes:” The future referred here, is about five to ten years later, so I think it’s time for designers to ponder how the changes will influence the world.”