MIT has demonstrated a "Dynamic Shape Display" that can physically change shape to render 3D content. As Fast Company reports, the display is called inFORM, and it's a large surface that sits atop a series of pins, actuators, and linkages. By moving each actuator, inFORM can move the pin it's attached to up or down, allowing for a wide range of interactions.
A projector mounted above the surface provides context to the shapeshifting pins, giving them color and highlighting depth. In a video released by MIT, the table is shown moving a ball, mirroring a book, displaying 3D charts, and giving an extremely visible smartphone notification.
When used in conjunction with a Kinect sensor, inFORM gets a lot more interesting. The sensor is able to accurately map and interpret the position of 3D objects, and MIT's system uses that data to allow you to move the table's pins with just your hands. This can even work remotely, as demonstrated by the video, which shows an MIT staffer interacting with items via a video conference.
MIT says it's exploring "a number of application domains" for inFORM. Key areas of interest include 3D visualizations of CT scans and other medical uses, device interaction, and the manipulation of physical objects. It's also very interested in mapping and terrain models, which could be used by urban planners and architects to better visualize and share 3D designs. The MIT Tangible Media Group, which is responsible for inFORM's creation, says it's currently collaborating with MIT's Changing Places group to explore the possibilities for urban planners.
It's extremely impressive stuff, but it's just one step on a long path to what MIT calls Radical Atoms. First conceptualized over a decade ago, Radical Atoms are what MIT believes will be the future of interactivity. The idea is that we presently interact with computers through graphical user interfaces (GUI), while inFORM and other projects like it offer up a tactile user interface (TUI).
MIT likens TUIs to a digital iceberg: just the tip of the digital content emerges "above water" into the physical realm. Moving past TUIs, the end game is Radical Atoms, a future in which "all digital information has physical manifestation ... as if the iceberg had risen from the depths to reveal its sunken mass."