MIT’s new shape-shifting interface lets you touch computer simulations

MIT’s Tangible Media Group has been continuously developing new projects based on the display. For some time now, it has been working on a shape-changing interface that allows users to manipulate data and run simulations based on digital input.

In 2013, MIT had unveiled a shape-shifting interface called Inform, a dynamic display that uses a Kinect camera to simulate the arms of a user in a different location in real time. It has now taken it further with Materiable, a shape-changing interface that allows you to see and even touch physical simulations. The idea is to allow users visualize and interact with materials or mathematical models of things like earthquakes and landslides.

Like InForm, Materiable uses an array of motor-driven “pixels” — blocks operated by tiny motors to respond to touch and give haptic feedback — that can be manipulated by the user. Materiable gives the Inform the ability to imitate the tangible 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 achieved by giving each individual Inform pixel its own ability to detect pressure, and then respond with simulated physics.

The Tangible Media Group researchers see it as a means of powerful educational tool. For instance, children can touch rendered animals like turtles. It could allow the interface to be used as a means of exploring the different properties of various materials; an architect can use it to visualize and manipulate a complex landscape design, and to run complex simulations such as earthquakes and tsunamis, the team’s paper suggested.