3D input devices like the Kinect have made so many new things possible, but what about output? inFORM is a remarkably simple but effective device that has to be seen to be believed.
The mechanism of MIT's new shapeshifting output device is remarkably simple. It is based on the well known pin screen devices that you can use to take a 3D impression of an object. A 2D plate of pins can be moved to create a surface.
In the same way, inFORM uses a set of rods and actuators to create dynamic surfaces. The big difference is that the actuators are under computer control.
Now you have a computer controlled surface and what is really surprising is how much you can get from this simple idea. With the help of a 3D depth camera and some innovative software, the surface can act as an output device that lets you manipulate real objects remotely. If you use the surface as a table then your computer can bring you real objects such as your mobile phone. Of course, almost boring by comparison, there is also the application of showing the user models of 3D objects to help with the design process.
Watch the video to see how it works in practice. What you can't see in the video is that the actuators can provide a variable stiffness modifying how the surface feels and how it can be moulded by touch.
While there are many obvious serious applications such as displaying volumetric CT scans, displaying complex data or providing early experience of prototypes, there is also the possibility of having fun with the device. After all simple pinscreens are still sold as executive toys. Could there be a new generation of games in this?
What about putting a device at each end of a video phone call?
With a little more engineering to take it to a higher resolution and smoothness, you could have a magic coffee table that automatically handed you your coffee and followed up with a donut.
Perhaps one day all furniture will be alive.