Can A Shapeshifting UI Make You Hug Your Toaster?

An MIT Media Lab project adds a new dimension to touch-screen interfaces, with hopes of making our experience with gadgets even more tactile.

The ubiquitous glass touch screen sure seems like it has potential–it’s made interacting with computers feel more like interacting with the world around us. Excepting one fatal flaw: You can’t sink your fingers into it, nor can you pull anything out of it. So while we can work all sorts of UI fakery, the fundamental physical interactions behind touch screens are inherently limited to 2-D.


Obake is what its creators, MIT Media Lab’s Dhairya Dand and Rob Hemsley, call a “2.5-D” interface. It’s essentially an elastic touchpad with a display projected on top. And as you pull or poke it, a depth camera measures these movements while a series of linear actuators protrudes topographical shapes through the elastic surface.

The result is a pushable display with the capabilities of pushing back, which results in a reactive, undulating surface.

“One reason we haven’t yet been able to make a true 3-D display is because our perspective on displays dates back to the mouse and GUI. We have seen some previous research in the field of shape displays. . .but they all try to implement the traditional GUI gestures onto a 2.5-D display,” Dand explains. “What we need is a new way of thinking about 3-D, a new language of interaction, a new material that shatters our idea of what a display can be and can do, and yet be something out of our known surroundings and not alien. For us, an elastic display fit this bill.”

Despite what may appear to be a high-tech approach, Dand and was actually inspired by nature, specifically the “fluidity and malleability” of water. At the same time, water–as we can wield it today–makes for a lousy output medium. Could you read an email through water? Could you render a scene in water? So Dand considered useful solid shapes like cubes and cones. Obake is ultimately a marriage of these disparate ideas, fluidity through elastic and geometry through linear actuators.

But things get even more interesting when you combine these “2.5-D” Obake screens to build richer, true 3-D interactions into the gadgets we know and love today.

“Let’s take an example–say the toaster,” Dand explains. “Instead of having buttons on the toaster which divorces interaction from functionality, what if, say, you alter the toaster with a malleable surface to make room for more breads of different sizes. You then squeeze the toaster a bit with your hands, the toaster slowly regains its original shape while toasting the bread, and finally the toast pops out.”


I’m not sure that hugging my toaster is the most efficient way to brown my bread, but make that toaster hug me each morning, and we have ourselves a deal.

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About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company. He started, a simple way to give back every day.