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article imageNew shape-shifting interface lets you touch 3D computer images

By James Walker     May 10, 2016 in Technology
A team of researchers have created a new shape-shifting interface that allows you to interact with 3D computer images through the medium of touch. The interface makes it possible to feel physical objects in computer simulations and models.
The project is being developed by MIT's Tangible Media Group. The team is working to create more intuitive interactions between humans and computers by making it possible to reach out and touch 3D objects that are usually constrained to the visual sense.
The group's latest work is Materiable, a dynamic material that is able to change its shape in response to direct physical touch. The technology is described in a lengthy research paper published by the team.
"While shape, color and animation of objects allows us rich physical and dynamic affordances, our physical world can afford material properties that are yet to be explored by such interfaces," the team said. "Material properties of shape changing interfaces are currently limited to the material that the interface is constructed with. How can we represent various material properties by taking advantage of shape changing interfaces' capability to allow direct, complex and physical human interactions?"
The group set out to answer that question, developing Materiable. The system is essentially an array of blocks that can move when touched. The interface is built by a 24x24 grid of "pixel" blocks. Each pixel has its own motor that can raise or lower the block in response to touch.
When you press down on the blocks, they react like a real surface. The motors produce a resisting force that mimics the material being simulated. As you push down on the blocks, the blocks push back up at you with a velocity and force appropriate to their real-world counterparts.
The team has programmed Materiable with a set of physics equations that allow it to simulate materials including sand, water and rubber. With a lighter material, the blocks offer minimal resistance to touches. With a more substantial material, you receive a firmer response.
The Tangible Media Group has envisioned a few scenarios where Materiable could be useful. It is aimed at letting users interact with things they could previously only visualise, aiding the understanding of fields such as landscape design, disaster recovery and mathematical modelling.
"We are excited to see how interactions with rendered material properties in tangible interfaces can be used to enhance the computer interaction experience and bring our experience of computation closer to the ways we so easily interact with our physical world," the team said in its research paper.
Materiable may be a long way from being a consumer technology but it's an exciting insight into the future of displays and human to computer interaction methods nonetheless. MIT's Tangible Media Group has previously worked on projects including InForm, a dynamic pin-based display that scans moving objects and converts the 3D data into a physical representation, and Transform, a 3D bench capable of changing its physical shape.
More about Display, 3d, Interface, future technology, 3d displays
 
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