MIT’s Crazy Shapeshifting Display Can Now Build With Blocks
When the MIT Media Lab’s Tangible Interfaces Group introduced inFORM a couple years ago, the internet collectively lost its shit. It’s easy to see why. The shapeshifting display, which translates digital data into three-dimensional forms, was a glimpse at what the interfaces of the future might look like once glossy glass screens were replaced with tangible pixels. It was wild to watch, but somehow it felt like a toy or a future too distant to actually grasp.
Now that same team is back with a development that pushes the research behind inFORM in a new, intriguing direction. Called Kinetic Blocks, the new project shows how a shapeshifting display can be used to construct, deconstruct, and reassemble objects. The Kinetic Blocks display (which is the exact same display used for inFORM) is made up of 900 computer-controlled plastic pins that react to both pre-programmed and real-time inputs. Alone, the pins have a single degree of motion (vertical), which inherently limits the complexity of how a block can be manipulated. Collectively, though, the pins are able to execute all kinds of movements.
In the video you watch as a black building block is pushed around the display, like a crowd surfer riding a wave of plastic white pins. Depending on how it’s programmed, the display can rotate the blocks on the x, y, and z axis. They can stack blocks by lifting and tumbling then topple that pile over by raising a few more pins. They can serve as a scaffold to help build more complex shapes with the blocks. Using a Kinect camera, the display can even record and analyze movements, which allows it to copycat and recreate a building technique on its own.
Philipp Schlosser, one of the researchers on the paper explains that Kinetic Blocks is a continuation of inFORM that simply uses different code to create a new effect. “In the beginning we were more talking about representing forms on the table,” he says. “And how we’re looking at what can we move, how can we move it, how versatile can this thing be?” Right now, the answer to that question is “sorta versatile.” The display can control square blocks with ease, but extrapolating that function into a robot that could, say, fold your clothes when you place them on the display or deftly manipulate a tool, would require a display with much higher resolution (something they’re currently at work on). “We see this almost like the first computer; they were big and clunky and could only do a few things,” he says. “Hopefully in the future this can be a big versatile engine you can use to control whatever you like.”