What if you could reach into your computer screen, pull something out of it, and manipulate it with your hands?
New technology that allows us to do just that is a step away from revolutionizing the way we interact with the digital world. Technology will soon make it possible for us to reach out and touch digital information, making interaction and collaboration between people thousands of miles apart much easier.
The Tangible Media Group at MIT is developing tons of these game-changing technologies. One new device called inFORM allows the user to move objects around without having to actually physically be there to touch them. inFORM creators Daniel Leithinger, Sean Follmer, and Hiroshi Ishii, describe inFORM as a Dynamic Shape Display “that can render 3-D content physically, so users can interact with digital information in a tangible way.”
In this demonstration it appears as if they’ve made a pegboard to interpret screen data so it looks like this guy is rolling the ball around…
… But behind the scenes you can see the user is creating the physical representation of himself by moving his actual hands to interact with the ball in the digital representation:
Follmer said this kind of shape display and digital interaction technology has existed for a while, but inFORM is different because it focuses on interaction between the user and objects, and provides a way for people far away to collaborate and work together.
For example the scientists behind inFORM say on the Tangible Media Group website that “remote participants in a video conference can be displayed physically, allowing for a strong sense of presence and the ability to interact physically at a distance.”
Follmer said inFORM could likely be used for maps and terrain models, and to make prototypes of architecture designs.
For example, if landscapers were planning the construction of an outdoor courtyard, one could reach out and move the physical objects around from thousands of miles away.
They even think doctors will be able to use inFORM to enhance the diagnosis and treatment of patients.
“Finally, cross sections through volumetric data such as medical imaging CT scans can be viewed in 3-D physically and interacted with,” the Tangible Media Group website says. “We would like to explore medical or surgical simulations.”
Right now inFORM is only set up based on a local network, but Follmer said there is nothing preventing it from working from farther distances. He said its just a matter of more research and testing.
Other next-generation screens
There are many other pieces of technology that are making digital information touchable. Most of this technology relies on haptic feedback. Haptic feedback is the reason touchscreens work. Your touch sends a vibration or current between your finger and the screen.
But a company called Bristol Interactions and Graphics has developed a technology called UltraHaptics that eliminates the need to touch a screen altogether. It uses ultrasound waves that concentrate around the user’s hand. The concentration creates pressure mid-air that feels and act like invisible buttons.
Second Surface, also developed by MIT’s Tangible Media Group, lets you draw things in a spatial grid anywhere. You can even see what other users are drawing and contribute your own digital information.
T(ether), another Tangible Media Group project, allows users to actually reach into the virtual world and manipulate digital information.
Scientists at Disney Research have even figured out a way for us to sense 3-D texture on a touchscreen. We can run our hands across a screen and can feel different textures like wood or metal. These screens manipulate the haptic feedback current produced by our touch. Manipulating the currents makes it possible to simulate different textures.
HP is working on a way to view objects in 3-D from mobile devices and essentially create a portable hologram similar to the Princess Leia hologram in “Star Wars.”
Museums like the Smithsonian are even taking advantage of this kind of interactive technology by creating digital models of their exhibits that anyone in the world can access. You can visit the museum even if you’re thousands of miles away. You can view each artifact from every angle, zoom in and out, and you can even print out your own model of the artifact with a 3-D printer. The process to create one of these interactive models takes a long time. Each artifact has to be scanned from dozens of angles to make it possible.
These technologies might not make it into your hand the way they are right now, but it’s likely that in the future they will be wrapped into the tech that we use today, Follmer said.
The Tangible Media Group sees inFORM as a step toward the idea of “radical atoms” — materials that are more fluid than rigid, so instead of a phone that’s just a rectangle, your device can change shape at will.
Right now with a smartphone you can make calls, play games, browse the Internet, send texts, and use maps. But the phone presents all that information the exact same way. It may be possible to create a smartphone that you can display different kinds of information in different ways that are the more user-friendly, Follmer said.
For example, you phone could take one shape so that you can hold it to your ear when you get a call, but take a different shape — maybe more dome-like — that’s more useful when you are getting directions.
All this technology is transforming our relationship with digital information from a passive one, in which we stare at the information on a screen, into an active one, in which we can physically interact with and manipulate the information.
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