Shapeshifting Technology Within Grasp

Shapeshifting isn't just for sci-fi movies; new shapeshifting technology can change video chats of the future.

A research group out of MIT has created a way to allow inanimate objects to respond to human touch. Internet users may soon use this technology to interact with each other or play with objects virtually.

MIT research assistant Daniel Leithinger says shapeshifting can take your smart device to the next dimension. "Right now, if you think about it, we are just poking at glass surfaces, and then we have these rich graphics underneath. Wouldn't it be more engaging if we could actually touch information, reach out to other people and have a much richer sensory experience?"

The technology uses motorized plastic pins to respond to your movement. A group of pins are attached to a structure, each with an individualized motor. A motion sensor camera measures your movements and tells the pins how to respond. Fellow researcher Philipp Schoessler explains the technology: "Each element is like a pixel on a screen and if you have a lot of pixels, you can get the illusion of forms of shapes."

Tangible media, like shapeshifting, can allow you to interact with other users, even shake hands virtually. Leithinger says it can also be used to develop 3D models. "Originally we started out developing shape displays. And the idea of a shape display is, they are kind of like your average multi-touch display like your computer or phone. But rather than just sensing touch and outputting graphics it can also output shapes and you can deform those shapes."

It can even be used to transform your furniture. Researchers hope to incorporate shapeshifting into furniture that can mold to your body, identify pressure points, or stimulate movement to keep you alert on the job. "I think of it more as helping you, not forcing you to change yourself. Going from a seated to a standing position, that's definitely something it can do, help you form healthy habits," says Leithinger.

The possibilities move beyond furniture and video chats. The technology can be used in other fields like landscaping and architecture.

The tech is still in its developmental stages but Leithinger says it may soon become a part of daily life. "We really feel we can go much more interesting...We can have the richness of real objects, of using our hands and our bodies, when interacting with computers. But we think that this shapeshifting technology will be necessary in order for us to do so."