Sean Follmer says that we’re in an era of computers everywhere. Our pockets, our desks, and our walls all have computers but we think of them as devices instead of environments and tools. Smart tables, smart rooms, or smart cities should be able to adjust to our needs to create easier methods of work.
In his TED Talk Shape-shifting tech will change work as we know it, Follmer shows several examples of work that the Tangible Media Group is doing inside the MIT Media Lab. inFORM is the focus of this talk, the group’s display that takes digital information and makes it physical.
inFORM concentrates on allowing people to manipulate objects across a distance. Two team members on a video conference interface can work to sculpt a piece together, or operate tools for one another. Nine hundred linear actuators work together to move the pins in the board up and down. Sean says the motion and linkages aren’t complex but the fact that there are nine hundred separate small machines in the assembly required several hundred hours of physical labor. A depth sensing camera, in this case a Microsoft Kinect, takes inputs from the user and tells the table which pins need to move up or down.
TRANSFORM was created for the Milan Design Week in 2014 and features three shape displays that move pins to make a dynamic tool. The video shown during the TED Talk lets TRANSFORM turn into a desk and then a display table. Pockets are created for pens and post-it notes while stands morph up out of the surface for a tablet and phone.
There are several other ideas shown but not explored in this talk. A thin flexible material is first used as a phone and then morphs into a wristband. Later a different heavier device starts as a wristband pulsing and dancing on a wrist, then snakes itself into a rectangle shape and can take user inputs like a tablet, and finally morphs into a banana shape for the user to use as a telephone.
Follmer stays with his central idea throughout the presentation, that society is evolving and the tools we use need to evolve at the same rate. Tools will continue to add features and we will need more complex controls for the tools. Follmer now works at Stanford but most of the work presented here was done at MIT. It’s fascinating to get glimpses into the work that’s being done to make digital communication exist physically.