MAS.834 Tangible Interfaces

Hiroshi Ishii, Jerome B. Wiesner Professor of Media Arts and Sciences
G (Fall) 3-3-6 H-LEVEL Grad Credit
Tuesday 1-4pm
View on Canvas

MAS.834 Tangible Interfaces - Fall 2020 Online Course

WHEN:   Tuesday 1-4 pm 

THE FIRST CLASS:    September 1st, 2020
THE LAST CLASS:   December 8th, 2020

INSTRUCTOR:   Prof. Hiroshi Ishii

TAs:   Alice Hong
               Jack Forman
               Zhipeng Liang.

CONTACT:  (instructor, TAs and staff)

This HCI (Human-Computer Interaction) course will explore the design space of  Tangible User Interfaces (Tangible Bits and Radical Atoms) that give dynamic physical form to digital information and computation. Our goal is to broaden the bandwidth of interaction between people and digital information, making bits directly manipulable with our hands and perceptible at the periphery of human awareness. We will pursue tangible interfaces that are not only practical but also aesthetically pleasing and inspiring.

Through the invention of new digital/physical materials, we would like to enhance our capabilities to design, communicate, and express using the full range of human senses and skills. Among them, we are focusing on Tangible Telepresence to reinvent distancing and strengthen connectedness among people separated spatially and temporally. We introduce "tangibility" to interpersonal communication and collaboration channels to enhance the sense of copresence. 

This course is a project-based interaction design course centered around design workshops, the literature on Tangible User Interfaces (TUIs), dynamic shape displays, programmable materials, and telepresence. This course has two primary student group projects to design TUIs, as well as various guest lectures from relevant fields of HCI, interaction design, and enabling technologies.

Students will design and develop experimental TUIs, novel applications, engaging interaction scenarios, and enabling technologies in the design studio environment, using sketches, animation, physical mockups, video, and working prototypes to solicit studio discussion. Course enrollment is limited to around 30 to keep a design studio atmosphere.

For Fall 2020, we will have this course 100% online using Zoom, Canvas, Slack, Google Drive/Doc/Slides/Sheet, and other remote collaboration tools (groupware). 

If you are interested in taking this course, please fill in and submit this Google Form before September 1st when the class starts. 

Sign-up sheet (Google Form) - due August 31st (Mon)

Pre-register by August 31st (Mon) so that your name will show up on MIT Canvas. We are sending out all Zoom invitations from MIT Canvas. If you cannot pre-register and need the zoom link for the 1st class, please contact

Syllabus on MIT Canvas

Trailer "Making Digital Tangible" - ACM SIGCHI Lifetime Research Award Lecture by Hiroshi at CHI 2019 in Glasgow on May 6th, 2019

Week 1: Sep. 1. Course Orientation
Week 2: Sep. 8. HCI, Ubiquitous Computing, and Tangible UI
Week 3: Sep. 15. Interaction Design & Tangible UI
Week 4: Sep. 22. CSCW & Telepresence
Week 5: Sep. 29. Ambient Media
Week 6: Oct. 6. Art, Design, and Philosophy
Week 7: Oct. 20. Project 1 mid-term review & Tech Workshop
Week 8: Oct. 27. Radical Atoms
Week 9: Nov. 3. Shape Displays & Actuated Tangibles
Week 10: Nov. 10. Materials & Fabrications
Week 11: Nov. 17. Programmable Materials
Week 12: Dec. 1. Future of HCI & SciFi
Week 13: Dec. 8. Project 2 final review 

2020-12-08 Final Class Photos






In 1997, we presented our vision of “Tangible Bits” at the CHI ’97 conference. We proposed the concept of Tangible User Interface (TUI) that is based on physical embodiment of digital information and computation, in order to go beyond the current dominant paradigm of “Painted Bits” or Graphical User Interface (GUI). Humans have evolved a heightened ability to sense and manipulate the physical world, yet the GUI based on intangible pixels takes little advantage of this capacity. The TUI builds upon our dexterity by embodying digital information in physical space. TUIs expand the affordances of physical objects, surfaces, and spaces so they can support direct engagement with the digital world.

Through the design of a variety of TUIs, however, we have learned that TUIs are limited by the rigidity of “atoms” in comparison with the fluidity of “bits.” TUIs have limited ability to change the form or properties of physical objects in real time. This constraint can make the physical state of TUIs inconsistent with the underlying digital models.


To address this challenge, we presented our new vision, “Radical Atoms,” in 2012. 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.

Radical Atoms is the future material that can transform their shape, conform to constraints, and inform the users of their affordances. Radical Atoms is a vision for the future of human-material interaction, in which all digital information has a physical manifestation so that we can interact directly with it. We no longer think of designing the interface, but rather of the interface itself as material. We may call it “Material User Interface (MUI).”


Tangible Media Group | MIT Media Lab

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