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article imageOp-Ed: Physically interactive computing - MIT’s inFORM rewrites CAD, 3D

By Paul Wallis     Nov 16, 2013 in Science
Sydney - MIT’s new physically interactive inFORM is the at the “Hey, this thing rolls!” stage of wheel invention for practical 3D computing. It’s a 3D physical display of active computer processing- Solid form live computation imagery.
Yep, it’s live 3D computer imaging. It’s pretty basic now, but the potentials are huge. This thing can even manage third party physical objects, like a ball on the interface. Imagine that as a working game, physical or media process. You could play sports with it, in theory, a sort of Xbox/Playstation hardball.
This technology is a new class of physical tool, in many ways. inFORM is live computing using a physical matrix of “solid pixels” to duplicate computing with combined physical interaction processes. You can actually move the solid pixels around with your hands. If this sounds a bit familiar, like using electromagnetic fields to create musical sounds or a sort of cooperative Rubik’s cube on a mission, you’re on the right track.
Tangible Media Group (TMG) is the MIT group behind inFORM. There website has a demo video and a lot of information about the principles of inFORM, which is based on what they call the “Tangible Bits” principle. They’ve been at work on this project since 1997, and have also since evolved a new principle called Radical Atoms”, released this year.
To give some idea of the sheer scope of TMG’s vision, this is the top paragraph of their statement about Tangible Bits:
In 1997, we presented our vision of “Tangible Bits” at the CHI '97 conference. We proposed the concept of Tangible User Interface (TUI) that is based on physical embodiment of digital information & computation, in order to go beyond the current dominant paradigm of “Painted Bits” or Graphical User Interface (GUI). Humans have evolved a heightened ability to sense and manipulate the physical world, yet the GUI based on intangible pixels takes little advantage of this capacity. The TUI builds upon our dexterity by embodying digital information in physical space. TUIs expand the affordances of physical objects, surfaces, and spaces so they can support direct engagement with the digital world.
“Um….Wow?” Doesn’t quite say enough
I’ll let MIT’s inFORM video and related materials speak for themselves. There’s much more to inFORM than meets the eye, in the most literal possible sense.
If inFORM sounds ambitious, there’s a back end paradigm to inFORM that I can see which is even bigger in scope:
1. The human interaction is just one part of the equation for inFORM.
2. The computing, however, is a virtual audit trail of processes and manageable and measurable actions within the operations of inFORM.
Imagine a 3D, manipulable shape able to react at processor speeds to an environment, find and define issues, and provide reliable metrics. Every aspect of the 3D form can be defined, evaluated, and used efficiently.
Engineering dream come true? Much, much more than that. inFORM could become an actual production process, super-fast, a whole new level for 3D printing and 3D media.
The fact is that while CAD and 3D printing, two of the obvious partners for inFORM, are progressing by leaps and bounds, CAD is graphics-only and 3D printing is still at fax levels of efficiency. While their translation to solid forms is OK-ish, able to produce whole prototypes and ship them around the world in 24 hours, they’re still pretty placid in production terms. They’re also not as flexible as inFORM which seems to be able to produce multiple forms instantly.
In production terms, time is money + more money. Speed of form creation matters. So do the logistics and supply chain issues. inFORM, seen as a creative production process, is a very new, valuable ball game.
Lets’ move to another level: Materials. inFORM, can work with live coordinates, creating forms. There are a lot of materials, from polymers and crystalline forms down to even molecular forms, which are very easy to manage in terms of coordination of metrics and movements. They’re reliable, consistent materials, accurately measurable on nanoscale, and all they need to do is be in some version of the inFORM system to be manipulated.
For the next generation of inFORM, that means going from Cuisenaire type blocks (Anyone else get a flash of déjà vu from that video?) to much finer materials, which is where it needs to go, in terms of solids. This would be the “HD” version of inFORM.
Can billions of pixels be accurately manipulated by humans? Yes and no. Painters and photographers do it all the time. The human eye works to sizes of 1/10,000th of an inch.
Can billions of pixels be manipulated by good computer code? Yes, ad nauseam. InFORM is potentially unlimited in this area.
Now consider the forces used to manipulate inFORM. InFORM is obviously at least theoretically able to manage tracking of its movements and record them. “Construction” codes as natural byproducts? Inevitably, and they’ll dovetail well with CAD-style sheets and coordinated metrics. Instant quality control, down to individual pixels. That’s potentially invaluable in itself.
Does that make the production of just about everything a lot more efficient? How could it not?
...And beyond
The third level, for want of a better expression, is using inFORM as a design tool in its own right for more than solids- inFORM appears to have a lot of potential for managing codes, too. inFORM could be used to break the barriers between code and CAD GUI operations. The trouble at the moment is that CAD designs, however good, have to be “interpreted” into physical objects and materials. inFORM may well be able to eliminate that issue, creating test objects and also evaluating CAD code performance in real time. This is a way of pinning down design problems, defining them, and better still, having accurate measurements to work with.
(CAD can do what it can do. While “design and hope it works” isn’t the normal mode of CAD design, bugs aren’t exactly unknown, nor are CAD designers bald by choice. InFORM may be able to unravel bugs very effectively, blending with CAD software to provide instant access to design issues.)
In effect, inFORM may have the solutions for a lot of problems, as well as being a major asset in its own right. The obvious back end capabilities of inFORM need to be valued as highly as the front end presentation.
The current roles envisaged for inFORM are 3D maps, urban planning and geospatial data (all indicators of a level of accuracy to which the current demo information doesn’t quite do justice) and a few interesting, if apparently straightforward applications:
You won’t see a new wheel invented very often. inFORM is at the embryo stage, roughly the second or third cell division since conception. Keep an eye on this technology, because it can revolutionize anything which can be digitized. The future for inFORM will go well beyond that. It’s the new 3D version of the hammer, the wheel, and all the mechanical principles, in one.
I sincerely hope inFORM isn’t compromised or sidetracked by some banal commercial application that might take priority over the sheer amount of pure research it needs. This idea deserves better than that.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
More about inFORM 3D computing, Mit, Tangible Media Group, CAD code, 3D printing
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