The Graphical User Interface, or GUI, has become so ubiquitous that it can be hard to remember a time when the only way to interact with computers was through arcane text commands. Pointing and clicking, swiping and tapping, icons and folders and windows and tabs -- to most of us these interfaces are second nature. But the GUI’s days may be numbered. The inFORM project from MIT’s Tangible Media Group makes today’s most advanced touchscreen look as outdated as a DOS prompt.
inFORM is a 2.5-D Dynamic Shape Display: a surface that can dynamically alter its contours to represent information in the third dimension. At first glance it looks like a tiled tabletop, but each tile is actually the top of a square plastic rod that can be raised or lowered by actuators embedded beneath the table. Together these rods are like physical pixels that can give shape to digital information.
Above the surface is a Kinect camera that lets inFORM sense objects placed on the table and react to gesture commands. There’s also a projector to display graphics on top of the physical interface. And the table responds to physical inputs, so pressing down on one of the rod-pixels can alter its height -- and the associated bit of data.
A display like this has obvious advantages for architects and designers, who could use it to directly interact with and manipulate their digital models; and for telepresence applications, in which a user at a remote location could use a camera to transmit gestures and interact with objects on the surface. But it’s hardly limited to niche uses: inFORM offers the chance to revolutionize the way we all interact with computers for everyday tasks, and really must be seen to be believed.
Though inFORM’s 30x30 display is ultra-low-res compared to a 1080p HD screen, it clearly demonstrates the possibilities of dynamic physical interfaces. The Tangible Media Group considers it just one of many steps on the road to their vision of “Radical Atoms” -- a future in which we’ll be able to give physical form to all digital information and interact with it directly. Visit the group’s webpage to learn about other projects that experiment with telepresence, shape-changing interfaces, and more.
inFORM was presented this year at the ACM Symposium on User Interface Software and Technology, and you can read the paper (pdf) for more details on how it works.
To see inFORM in action, watch the video below.
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