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MIT's Latest Tangible Interface? Shape-Shifting Digital Clay

The Tangible Media Group programs a physical interface to act like sand, rubber, water, and more.

In 2013, MIT unveiled a shape-shifting interface called Inform. Since then, the Tangible Media Group has continued developing new projects based on the display—including its latest, Materiable.

Originally, the Inform was a low-res display connected to a Microsoft Kinect, in which every "pixel" moved up and down to allow people half a world away to reach out and touch one another. While the Inform's versatile 3-D pixels could already be used to play games and even build objects remotely, it's now gaining some great physics-simulating abilities—allowing the display to be used as a huge block of reactive, shape-shifting clay.

Unveiled over the weekend at the CHI 2016 conference, MIT's Tangible Media Group calls this new functionality the Materiable platform. Materiable gives the Inform the ability to mimic the tactile qualities of real-world materials, like rubber, water, sand, and more. Depending on the settings, flicking the surface of an Inform might make all of its pixels ripple, or quiver like jelly, or even bounce like a rubber ball. It's all accomplished by giving each individual Inform pixel its own ability to detect pressure, and then respond with simulated physics.

The Tangible Media Group researchers give some cool examples of how this technology could be used. For example, artists could use the surface of an Inform display as digital clay to physically mock-up concepts, which are then stored as models on a nearby machine to be 3-D printed later. Likewise, medical students could use the Inform to practice their CPR technique on virtual patients, while seismologists and geologists could use Materiable as a way to simulate the way an earthquake might shift the terrain of a river bed.

Though the project was presented this weekend, Materiable has deep roots: way back in 2002, the Tangible Media Group was experimenting with ways to use projection-mapped sand and clay as an interface for 3-D design, but it was messy and limited.

Thanks to Inform's 3-D pixels, it looks like the lab has finally been able to polish up some of its earliest UI concepts. But if you expect a shape-shifting display of your own to play with, expect to wait a good long while: MIT's Tangible Media Group is in the business of exploring nascent UI/UX concepts, not necessarily delivering retail products. Consumer shape-shifting displays are likely another decade away—at least.

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