Credit: Courtesy of Tangible Media Group at the MIT Media Lab


Tangible Media Group (TMG) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology proposed the idea of radical atoms, a new user-interface paradigm in which atoms become as manipulable as bits, in 2012. This aspiration is a departure from the common graphical user interface as well as the somewhat clunky tangible user interface the group proposed in 1997. The group calls radical atoms---a more extreme vision of analog-digital interactivity---"Material User Interface."

"We no longer think of designing the interface, but rather of the interface itself as material," the group's website states.

  • Credit: Courtesy of Tangible Media Group at the MIT Media Lab

TMG's Daniel Leithinger, Sean Follmer, and Hiroshi Ishii recently unveiled an initial proof-of-concept of this technology: a dynamic shape display called inFORM. The interface projects remote 2D and 3D information. A flat panel display communicates live video, while a horizontal matrix of dynamic blocks communicates live physicality. 

Preliminary potential applications include GIS and maps, urban planning, and architecture, as well as 3D design models and medical imaging.

It is likely that the resolution of this technology will increase dramatically, as 2D displays have, as it advances. Perhaps the tool could even be devised as a two-way interface that enables remote physical embodiment on both sides (the current device is a one-way prototype), as well as include haptic feedback that simulates actual physical interaction.

Credit: Courtesy of Tangible Media Group at the MIT Media Lab

Imagine how this technology could change architectural practice. Will interactive, shape-shifting blocks replace computer screens and mice? Will client meetings become collaborative sandboxes? Will teams in various remote locations finally be able to interact as if they are physically present? And what about architecture itself: will these building surfaces transform static structures into dynamic objects? Will architecture no longer be a fixed entity, but rather an ever-morphing 3D interface capable of embodying multiple design concepts over time?

inFORM - Interacting With a Dynamic Shape Display from Tangible Media Group on Vimeo.

Blaine Brownell, AIA, is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.