Shape-shifting Materiable turns digital data into physical shapes

Real-life Minecraft, anyone?

A recent trend in studying how humans and computers interact is the possibility of shape-changing interfaces that turn digital data into physical shapes. It looks like something that might appear in a sci-fi film but researchers from MIT’s Tangible Media Group have created a shape-shifting interface that lets people manipulate data by touching it. In a recent paper, the researchers described a system that can create physical shapes from data and respond instantly to physical interactions with the user.

Materiable is a bunch of blocks that work together to create shapes and it’s programmable to behave differently depending on the application. The blocks can simulate materials such as water and sand, or represent hard data to be manipulated. You can tap it, press it, lay on it, or drop objects on it to interact with Materiable. It looks amazing in motion so check out this video to see a demonstration:

Materiable consists of many foam blocks attached to motors and sensors. When the user touches the blocks, the sensors send information to the computer for physics simulation. How the physics will be simulated depends on the current application. The computer then sends instructions back to the motors to respond accordingly to being touched and the user sees and feels the result. All of this happens instantly, giving the illusion that the user is interacting with real liquids or other shape-shifting materials.

In the video demonstration, the researchers also project colours onto the blocks depending on the programmed application. For example, some blocks are coloured blue and behave like a liquid and others behave like a pliable solid. This means the user can create channels in the solid material to let the liquid run through it. The system is sensing touch, simulating the liquid, then telling both the blocks and the projector what to do. To us, it just looks like making a channel and having liquid run into it.

Materiable itself, or at least this version of it, isn’t going to appear as an interface for any of your devices. This is just a first step and an academic one, but it opens the door to future interfaces that could change the way some of us interact with data. At the very least it would make Minecraft more interesting.

Main image: MIT Tangible Media Group