PLAN 87: Article
Hands Across the Sea

An Invention That Could Radically Alter Remote Design Collaboration

Researchers at SA+P’s Media Lab have developed a new technology that would allow architects and planners to view and jointly manipulate 3D models of projects in real time and real space from opposite sides of the globe, then actually shake hands once they reach agreement on the changes. The invention, called inFORM, holds profound implications for the future of remote design collaboration and could be available commercially in as few as 5-10 years.

Created by PhD candidates Daniel Leithinger and Sean Follmer, and overseen by Hiroshi Ishii – director of the Media Lab’s Tangible Media Group – the inFORM is essentially a computerized Pinscreen, one of those executive desk toys that allows you to create a 3-D representation of an object by pressing it into a bed of pins.

With inFORM, each pin is connected to a motor controlled by a nearby laptop that can not only move the pins to render digital content physically, but can also register real-life objects interacting with the pins’ surface. The online video illustrates the way it works much better than words.

The device consists of about 900 plastic pegs arranged in a grid, each of which can be raised or lowered to form a three-dimensional shape. As you manipulate the shape with your hands, a camera above tracks your movements and transmits that input to the computer, changing the related digital file, so you’re interacting with digital content in physical space almost as easily as if you were molding clay.

Using this device, two people Skyping from opposite sides of the globe could physically manipulate a 3D model together – adjusting, tweaking or even radically transforming the digital blueprint with their hands, simultaneously. A designer in Tokyo, for example, could alter a model on her desk while talking with her client in Tangiers; in response, the client in Tangiers could manipulate the model on his desk and the model on the designer’s desk in Tokyo would change accordingly.

They could alter the design by manipulating the physical model, by manipulating the digital file, or both. And as the model changes, inFORM could use color projections to show resulting changes in population density, energy consumption, traffic patterns, etc., instantaneously. The speed of inFORM’s responsiveness would allow designers to prototype their 3D designs in the moment, without waiting hours for a 3D print-out.

The impetus for the invention is the proliferation of touch-screen displays like the ones on tablets and smartphones that don’t take advantage of humans’ ability to handle things, depriving us of the tactile sensations that connect us to the world around us. By embodying digital information in physical space, inFORM re-engages our dexterity, once more making relevant use, one might say, of our opposable thumbs. (As opposed to our screen-tapping thumbs.) For those who bemoan the loss of hands-on drawing as a design skill, this innovation may go one better.

The inFORM is one interpretation of an interface that can physically transform itself to be whatever it needs to be, paving the way for a world in which we could reconfigure physical matter as easily and quickly as pixels on a screen. And indeed, the Tangible Media Group is working on interfaces that will reconfigure themselves according to their intended use – if you want to take a photo with your cellphone, for instance, it would assume the shape and function of a camera. Or a TV remote control, if that’s how you want to use it. The phone could pulsate when it rings and change into the shape of a landline receiver when you answer. The whole enterprise returns us to the real world of physical interactions and tactility.

The developers of inFORM are working with urban planners in the Media Lab’s Changing Places group to refine their idea from an architecture/urban planning perspective. For more information on the project, contact the Tangible Media Group at <tangible.media.mit.edu/> and/or the Changing Places Group at <media.mit.edu/research/groups/changing-places>.