MIT Developed a Shape-Shifting Display That Can Imitate Water

In recent years, MIT Media Lab has been tinkering with a futuristic digital interface. A display consisting of white, plastic pins bundle together like pixels in a grid. At first it seems simple and unassuming, but in action this white grid is capable of incredible things.


Put simply, sensors below the pins react to different stimulus and allow users to interact with digital information in a tangible way.

Recently, seven engineers from the MIT Media Lab put their genius heads together to create Materiable. This incredible program pushes the boundaries between digital and physical like never before.

In a paper published by the team, they explain:

“Shape changing interfaces give physical shapes to digital data so that users can feel and manipulate data with their hands and bodies. However, physical objects in our daily life not only have shape but also various material properties.”


Materiable’s software has been altered so that the interface replicates the characteristics of different materials. For example, water, rubber or clay.

First of all, sensors underneath the pins read how much pressure is applied by a hand. Then an internal computer uses different physics algorithms to control how it responds. It can mimic the physical properties of flexibility, elasticity and viscosity.


As a consequence, Materiable elicits what researchers have called a “pseudo-haptic” effect. This means that the behavior of the grid tricks your brain into perceiving it as something completely different.

So, if it ripples at your touch, your brain is more likely to read it as a pool of water.

See for yourself below:

Before Materiable, There Was…

Materiable is the third and most recent development in what has been an exciting few years of discovery for the team at MIT.

First, back in 2013 they developed InFORM, a program that renders digital content into physical, 3-D shapes. The MIT website gives an example of its application:

“Remote participants in a video conference can be displayed physically, allowing for a strong sense of presence and the ability to interact physically at a distance.”


Next, in 2014, MIT Media Lab took the interface into the realm of design. The program, Transform, uses the interface to turn furniture into dynamic machinery. Transform responds to the kinetic energy of the people around it.

ballsgoroundThe short time it took the engineers of MIT Media Lab to stretch the capabilities of this interface presents exciting possibilities for the future. InForm, Transform, Materiable and the inevitable progressions of these programs could very well transform the way we interact with our devices in the close future.

We can’t wait to see what comes next.


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