Sometimes data is too complex to synthesize in a table or chart. Now imagine having a third dimension and a range of media formats—from a smartphone to a building façade—to convey information. Researchers at Lancaster University, in the U.K., are among those aiming to bring this technology to reality. Their prototype shape-changing display consists of a 300-millimeter-square (12-inch-square) grid fitted with a 10-by-10 array of translucent columns—essentially 3D pixels—whose movements are driven by gestures and touch.

The prototype receives data from a computer that translates a spreadsheet in the CVS file format to work with the hardware. Once in the display, 100 data points can be shown simultaneously. Users can tap data points, or the individual pixels, to trigger a bookmark or hide specific items. The chart’s axes function as a touch-screen and can be used for data organization and other navigation, allowing the device to host thousands of data points, research lead Jason Alexander, a lecturer at the university’s School of Computing and Communications, told ARCHITECT in an email. The technology currently supports the re-ordering of rows and columns, but not individual pixels yet, “although that is only a software change that would not take much effort,” he said.

At 30 kilograms (66 pounds), the prototype does require two people to transport. Its square, frosted-acrylic columns are hollow and illuminated by LEDs, but still sizable when compared to the requirements of a mobile display. The researchers are now exploring new geometries and ways to represent the data, how to increase the resolution of the grid while reducing the pixel size, and the development of lightweight components that would allow for the technology's use (once scaled down) in handheld devices.

“Ideally, this technology would shrink into your smartphone, with every pixel capable of physically protruding from the display,” Alexander said. “Imagine looking at Google Maps and the terrain being physically rendered by the screen, with mountains and valleys being physically distinguishable.”

The team is proposing a range of applications for the technology; among them are enhanced mapping and navigation features for mobile displays, an alternative to virtual 3D cinema displays, dynamic advertisements, and meeting-room and gaming interfaces. However, those capabilities are still in the distant future.

Lancaster University isn't the only institution bringing shape-changing displays and responsive user interfaces to life. Last spring, the Tangible Media Group at ​MIT’s Media Lab​ debuted Transform, a three-dimensional tabletop display of pixels that move like waves based on gestures from its user.