Shape-shifting interface lets you touch computer simulations

Go beyond "Minority Report" by handling physical objects.

Researchers want us to better interact with machines via screens and VR, but let's face it, we humans like to touch real objects. MIT's Tangible Media Group has been playing with that idea for awhile now with projects like InForm, an uncanny telepresence interface. It has now taken it further with Materiable, a shape-changing interface that lets you see and even touch physical simulations. The idea is to let users visualize and interact with materials or mathematical models of things like earthquakes and landslides.

The Materiable is built from motor-driven blocks called "pixels" that respond to touch and give haptic feedback in return (the colors come from an overhead projector). Driven by basic physics simulations, the blocks (arrayed in groups of 24x24) can move on their own to mimic liquids and solid materials with different properties, much like InForm. What's new is that user can now push the blocks with any part of their bodies, and the blocks push back with varying speed and force, depending on the material being simulated. With water, for example, the level of touch is light, and for foam, it's firmer.

The team sees it as a powerful educational too. Children, for instance, can touch rendered animals like turtles, an architect can visualize and manipulate a complex landscape design, and buildings can be redesigned on the fly just by "shaping" them. Mathematicians can also see and "feel" wave equations, and even manipulate them with their hands. Many participants said that the touch perception was stronger than the visual, such that many didn't even look at the Materiable when describing what was happening.

The team plans to increase the force, speed and resolution of the shape display, to better simulate materials. The aim is to eventually create a new type of display that lets us use a sense other than our eyes to better understand the physical world.