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MIT Media Lab Star Reveals His First Project With Samsung

Jinha Lee gave us some of the world’s most exciting interfaces. Then he disappeared.

In 2013, Jinha Lee was one of the biggest names in experimental user interface. At MIT’s Tangible Media Group, he created a magnetically levitating display that allowed you to rearrange objects in midair and a monitor that you could reach your hands into, letting you touch information itself.

Then two years ago, at the peak of media attention, he returned to Korea to serve mandatory military service. After a month of bootcamp, he deferred to an alternative option: He joined Samsung.

There, he became a principal researcher and head of the interaction group working on new display technologies. His first project is called MediaSquare.

MediaSquare is a mid-stage concept to turn the sequestered media living on our phones into a communal experience on a shared screen. Watch the video above, and you’ll see people flick thumbnails of photos, videos, and even restaurants on their phones, and then these chunks of media float to the TV. Users can point their Samsung Galaxy phones to select content (that magic is thanks to the phone’s accelerometer), or twist the dial on their Samsung watches to crank up the volume of the music. Each piece of media can be hearted, much like a social network playing out in a single room.

The specifics are still in the works—it’s possible, for instance, that Samsung may support iOS devices when this comes to market—but the vision is clear: Lee wants all of the discrete gadgets around you to combine on a whim, to turn our four-inch isolated worlds into shared social experiences.

"There was this moment when I was having a coffee chat with my family, and during the conversation, my mom said she thought of something and would like to show it to us, then picked up her phone, spent some time finding something on her phone, and sent it to rest of us via mobile messenger!" Lee writes via email. "This was when I realized something was fundamentally going wrong here."

The anecdote gets to the heart of the modern day paradox at play: Our social lives exist on phones, so when we try to socialize in person, we end up consulting our photo reels, Facebook, and MMS. It’s actually harder to share these things with someone in the same room than it is from an entirely different state.

Lee isn’t the only interface guru tackling this problem. Mark Kawano, the head of Storehouse, released an AppleTV app called PhotoRemote that beams photos, videos, and more from the phone to the television so you can enjoy content together. But whereas Kawano has focused on something practical (and shippable), Lee pushes the realm of plausibility to its conceptual max. For instance, how do you convey to a user that his Samsung watch can turn up the volume at a party? In true researcher fashion, Lee is building the interaction first, answering that question later. And in building that interaction, Samsung is actually architecting its apps in a new way: To function for single users (as most apps are designed) and to convert for a multi-user interface (a feat which very few apps juggle).

"What we have demonstrated so far is only a few reference examples of possible interactions that could arise in the space," Lee writes. "The bigger idea is that multi-device interaction could take multiple forms. In such multi-device paradigm, it will be much more challenging to keep the interaction simple as in the mobile-paradigm."

Which is why it gets extremely difficult to critique MediaSquare as it exists today. The video we see here is, in essence, a beautifully produced proof of concept. MediaSquare doesn’t have a ship date, and whenever it hits, it could look much different than it does now. But Lee is more interested in the greater design challenge—of sharing information in space and sharing interface in space—than this particular solution to it.

"I hope people feel connected with each other in a more personal and intimate way, and that their communication does not get too much interrupted by mobile device while together," Lee writes. "The goal is to make people spend more time with friends than Facebook friends and appreciate ‘local network’ more than ‘social network.'"

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