Tangible Media
Seamlessly coupling the worlds of bits and atoms by giving dynamic physical form to digital information and computation.
We live between two worlds: our physical environment and cyberspace. The Tangible Media group's focus is on the design of seamless interfaces between humans, digital information, and the physical environment. People have developed sophisticated skills for sensing and manipulating our physical environments. However, most of these skills are not employed by traditional GUIs (Graphical User Interfaces). The Tangible Media group is designing a variety of "tangible interfaces" based on these skills by giving physical form to digital information, seamlessly coupling the dual worlds of bits and atoms. The goal is to change the "painted bits" of GUIs to "tangible bits," taking advantage of the richness of multimodal human senses and skills developed through our lifetime of interaction with the physical world.

Research Projects

  • Andante

    Xiao Xiao and Hiroshi Ishii

    Andante is a representation of music as animated characters walking along the piano keyboard that appear to play the physical keys with each step. Based on a view of music pedagogy that emphasizes expressive, full-body communication early in the learning process, Andante promotes an understanding of the music rooted in the body, taking advantage of walking as one of the most fundamental human rhythms.

  • Coded Lens

    Yusuke Sekikawa, Koichiro Suzuki and Sang-won Leigh

    We propose Coded Lens, a novel system for lensless photography. The system does not require highly calibrated optics, but instead, utilizes a coded aperture for guiding lights. Compressed sensing (CS) is used to reconstruct scene from the raw image obtained through the coded aperture. Experimenting with synthetic and real scenes, we show the applicability of the technique and also demonstrate additional functionality such as changing focus programmatically. We believe this will lead to cheaper, more compact, and even more versatile imaging systems.

  • inFORM

    Hiroshi Ishii, Alex Olwal, Daniel Leithinger and Sean Follmer

    Shape displays can be used to render both 3D physical content and user interface elements. We propose to use shape displays in three different ways to mediate interaction: facilitate, providing dynamic physical affordances through shape change; restrict, guiding users through dynamic physical constraints; and manipulate, actuating passive physical objects on the interface surface. We demonstrate this on a new, high-resolution shape display.

  • jamSheets: Interacting with Thin Stiffness-Changing Material

    Jifei Ou, Lining Yao, Daniel Tauber, Juergen Steimle, Ryuma Niiyama, Hiroshi Ishii

    This project introduces layer jamming as an enabling technology for designing deformable, stiffness-tunable, thin sheet interfaces. Interfaces that exhibit tunable stiffness properties can yield dynamic haptic feedback and shape deformation capabilities. In comparison to the particle jamming, layer jamming allows for constructing thin and lightweight form factors of an interface. We propose five layer structure designs and an approach which composites multiple materials to control the deformability of the interfaces. We also present methods to embed different types of sensing and pneumatic actuation layers on the layer-jamming unit. Through three application prototypes we demonstrate the benefits of using layer jamming in interface design. Finally, we provide a survey of materials that have proven successful for layer jamming.

  • MirrorFugue

    Xiao Xiao and Hiroshi Ishii

    MirrorFugue is an installation for a player piano that evokes the impression that the "reflection" of a disembodied pianist is playing the physically moving keys. Live music emanates from a grand piano, whose keys move under the supple touch of a pianist's hands reflected on the lacquered surface of the instrument. The pianist's face is displayed on the music stand, with subtle expressions projecting the emotions of the music. MirrorFugue recreates the feeling of a live performance, but no one is actually there. The pianist is an illusion of light and mirrors, a ghost both present and absent. Viewing MirrorFugue evokes the sense of walking into a memory, where the pianist plays without awareness of the viewer's presence; or, it is as if viewers were ghosts in another's dream, able to sit down in place of the performing pianist and play along.

  • Physical Telepresence

    Daniel Leithinger, Sean Follmer, Alex Olwal and Hiroshi Ishii

    We propose a new approach to physical telepresence, based on shared workspaces with the ability to capture and remotely render the shapes of people and objects. In this paper, we describe the concept of shape transmission, and propose interaction techniques to manipulate remote physical objects and physical renderings of shared digital content. We investigate, how the representation of user’s body parts can be altered to amplify their capabilities for teleoperation. A preliminary evaluation found users were able to manipulate simple objects remotely, and found many different techniques for manipulation that highlight the expressive nature of our system.

  • Pneumatic Shape-Changing Interfaces

    Hiroshi Ishii, Jifei Ou, Lining Yao, Ryuma Niiyama and Sean Follmer

    An enabling technology to build shape-changing interfaces through pneumatically driven soft composite materials. The composite materials integrate the capabilities of both input sensing and active shape output. We explore four applications: a multi-shape mobile device, table-top shape-changing tangibles, dynamically programmable texture for gaming, and shape-shifting lighting apparatus.

  • Radical Atoms

    Hiroshi Ishii
    Radical Atoms is our vision of interactions with future material. Radical Atoms takes a leap beyond Tangible Bits by assuming a hypothetical generation of materials that can change form and appearance dynamically, becoming as reconfigurable as pixels on a screen. Radical Atoms is a computationally transformable and reconfigurable material that is bidirectionally coupled with an underlying digital model (bits) so that dynamic changes of physical form can be reflected in digital states in real time, and vice versa.
  • Sourcemap

    Hiroshi Ishii and Leonardo Amerigo Bonanni
    Sourcemap is the social network for supply chains, connecting producers, manufacturers, and consumers for end-to-end visibility. Consumers use Sourcemap to learn where things come from and what they're made of, including their social and environmental impact. Manufacturers use Sourcemap to trace products down to raw materials and plan more resilient, efficient supply chains. Visit www.sourcemap.com for more information.
  • Sublimate

    Hiroshi Ishii, Sean Follmer, Daniel Leithinger, Samuel Luescher, Alex Olwal, Akimitsu Hogge and Jinha Lee

    Recent research in 3D user interfaces has pushed in two directions: immersive graphics and actuated tangible shape displays. We seek their hybrid by thinking about physical material density as a parameter in 3D rendering. We want to explore how digital models, handles, and controls can be rendered either as virtual 3D graphics or dynamic physical shapes, and move fluidly and quickly between these states, allowing physical affordances to be rendered only when needed. We were inspired by the different states of water: solid, gas, and liquid. We view digital computation and models as liquid, which can be vaporized into mid-air graphics, or solidified into dynamic physical shape. We also investigate transitions between solid and gas: sublimation and vaporization. To explore this, we have implemented a system which combines an actuated shape display and a spatial augmented reality display. This system can render physical shapes and volumetric graphics, co-located in the same space. We explore interaction techniques and motivating demonstration applications to explore 3D interaction between these boundaries. We also present results of a user study showing that freehand interaction with a physical shape display with co-located graphics outperforms direct interaction with only 3D graphics through a wand.

  • Tangible Bits

    Hiroshi Ishii, Sean Follmer, Jinha Lee, Daniel Leithinger and Xiao Xiao
    People have developed sophisticated skills for sensing and manipulating our physical environments, but traditional GUIs (Graphical User Interfaces) do not employ most of them. Tangible Bits builds upon these skills by giving physical form to digital information, seamlessly coupling the worlds of bits and atoms. We are designing "tangible user interfaces" that employ physical objects, surfaces, and spaces as tangible embodiments of digital information. These include foreground interactions with graspable objects and augmented surfaces, exploiting the human senses of touch and kinesthesia. We also explore background information displays that use "ambient media"—light, sound, airflow, and water movement—to communicate digitally mediated senses of activity and presence at the periphery of human awareness. We aim to change the "painted bits" of GUIs to "tangible bits," taking advantage of the richness of multimodal human senses and skills developed through our lifetimes of interaction with the physical world.
  • Tangible CityScape

    Hiroshi Ishii, Sean Follmer, Felix Heibeck, Daniel Leithinger, Philipp Schoessler, Yusuke Sekikawa and Sheng Kai Tang

    Tangible CityScape is a platform for users to explore the real 3D cityscape by changing parameters such as population, building capacity, traffic, energy consumption, and shadow simulation for collaborative review of urban planning. By integrating a 2.5D actuated shape display, immersive 2D displays, 3D projection mapping, and handheld AR, CityScape combines the strength of bits (pixels) and atoms (tangibles) to represent city models at different scales and translate the tangible view onto a larger, underlying data set.

  • THAW

    Sang-won Leigh, Philipp Schoessler, Hiroshi Ishii, Pattie Maes

    We present a novel interaction system that allows collocated screen devices to work together. The system tracks the position of a smartphone placed on a host computer screen. As a result, the smartphone can interact directly with data displayed on the host computer, which opens up a novel interaction space. We believe that the space on and above the computer screen will open up huge possibilities for new types of interactions. What makes this technology especially interesting is today’s ubiquity of smartphones and the fact that we can achieve the tracking solely through installing additional software on potentially any phone or computer.


    Hiroshi Ishii, Sean Follmer, Daniel Leithinger, Philipp Schoessler, Amit Zoran and LEXUS International

    TRANSFORM fuses technology and design to celebrate its transformation from still furniture to a dynamic machine driven by a stream of data and energy. TRANSFORM aims to inspire viewers with unexpected transformations and the aesthetics of the complex machine in motion. First exhibited at LEXUS DESIGN AMAZING MILAN (April 2014), the work comprises three dynamic shape displays that move over one thousand pins up and down in real time to transform the tabletop into a dynamic tangible display. The kinetic energy of the viewers, captured by a sensor, drives the wave motion represented by the dynamic pins. The motion design is inspired by dynamic interactions among wind, water, and sand in nature, Escher’s representations of perpetual motion, and the attributes of sand castles built at the seashore. TRANSFORM tells of the conflict between nature and machine, and its reconciliation, through the ever-changing tabletop landscape.

  • Weight and Volume Changing Device

    Hiroshi Ishii, Ryuma Niiyama and Lining Yao

    This project presents a weight-changing device based on the transfer of mass. We chose liquid metal and a bi-directional pump to inject into or remove from from the mass of a target object. The liquid metal is about six times heavier than water, and is thus suitable for effective mass transfer. We also combine the device with a dynamic volume changing function to achieve programmable mass/volume at the same time. We explore three potential applications enabled by weight-changing devices. This technique opens up a new direction in human science regarding user interfaces with dynamic weight/volume changing.