MIT Unveils The Shapeshifting Furniture Of The Future

The Transform, from MIT's Tangible Media Group, changes shape depending upon how users interact with it. Imagine a chair that could transform from an upright rocker to a sumptuous lounge, just by detecting your mood.

When it was first unveiled last year, the inFORM--a shapeshifting display that you can reach through and touch--was meant to be a sort of digital scrying pool through which MIT could imagine the user interfaces of the future. Currently on display at Milan's Design Week, the inFORM's successor (called, appropriately enough, the Transform) is a scrying pool too, but instead of helping us imagine the interfaces of the future, it's here to teach us what the polymorphous furniture of tomorrow will be like instead.

Created by Daniel Leithinger and Sean Follmer and overseen by professor Hiroshi Ishii at MIT's Tangible Media Group, the inFORM was essentially a self-aware monitor that didn't just display light; it could display shape, too. Additionally, it could sense when users were interacting with it. Using the inFORM, you could shake hands with someone at another computer across the world, just as easily as you might Skype from someone on your laptop.

The inFORM was an exciting look at the possibilities of future computer UIs. But it didn't quite capture all the ideas that the Tangible Media Lab was hoping to get across. "When most people look at inFORM, what they see is a big computer interface," Leithinger says. "And that's even how we thought of it. But in the future, computers aren't going to look like computers. They're going to be embedded in everything around us."


With Transform, the Tangible Media Group wanted to explore what the shapeshifting furniture of tomorrow might be like. What if the design of your furniture weren't static, but could change according to your nature, your personality, and more? Imagine a chair that could transform from an upright rocker to a sumptuous lounge, just by detecting your mood.

As part of the Lexus Design Amazing exhibition in Milan, the Transform is a table made up of more than 1,000 squares arranged in a triptych, each attached to a motor beneath the surface. The Transform changes shape depending upon how users interact with it and can also metamorphosize itself to influence the emotions of the people around it. Using a library of animations created by Philipp Schoessler, the surface of the Transform ripples, boils, turns into a school of abstract creatures, and even uses form and motion to sing a sort of geometric lullaby to calm people who interact with it.

What the Tangible Media Lab is trying to prove with Transform is that there are more to just shapeshifting interfaces than just shaking hands over Skype. The future of interface design is that we'll be able to interface with everything, and the line between what we call a computer and what we don't will eventually go away entirely. Tomorrow's computers will be furniture, clothing, and more, and the ways we interact with them--and they with us--will be richer than we can possibly imagine.

As for what's next for the Tangible Media Group, Follmer tells us that they hope it's no coincidence that they have been hosted in Milan this year by Lexus, an automobile maker. "Imagine a car with a shapeshifting dashboard!" he says. No need to imagine for long, though: next time we hear from these guys, we suspect they'll have already tried to build one for themselves.

You can read more information about the Transform at the Tangible Media Lab's official site here.

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3 Comments

  • Petit Orenji

    Not trying to be impertinent, but after viewing the vid and reading the above post, I still fail to grasp the point of this project. Is this the first step to responsive 3D holograms that can follow people around or something?

  • Jason P. Moran

    I think the idea is to understand what type of interactions are possible from a 3D physical interface to the physical world. Most inputs to computers now are keyboards, touch, and voice and outputs are primarily sound and visual. I gather that the point of this research is to explore other interaction modalities. It is less about the technology that makes the machine, and more asking what does having something that is responsive in a different way than a conventional touch screen monitor enable. What is possible with something that can interact with the physical world? I think the work raises interesting questions.

  • Describes our ideas better than we ever could. I'd also like to point out that besides the awesome work Philipp Schoessler and Jared Counts did on the content, Amit Zoran was the designer of the enclosure surrounding the actuators.