In fact, many of his students have populated art departments around the world. Joanna Berzowska, the associate dean of research faculty of fine arts at Concordia University in Montreal, Canada, was already at the Media Lab working with another adviser when Ishii arrived in 1995.
She recalls very little talk of tangible or physical interfaces at the time. Rather, most professors at the Lab were working on graphic interfaces or backend algorithm innovation.
“Hiroshi was the first one who arrived and started talking about the physical world as a playground for digital interaction,” Berzowska said. “I found it so interesting, the idea that we could use our hands and eyes to manipulate not just screens or a mouse, but that every component of our physical world could become augmented.”
As an artist, she had found MIT to be “very technological,” in general. Ishii, she said, sought to incorporate the arts in everything he did. “Hiroshi certainly pushed the boundaries of technology but always in conversation with artists and musicians, people from other disciplines. He understands the importance that cultural industries, including art, play in human experience.”
Excellence in all things
Ishii’s current and former students describe him as a perfectionist, pushing them to not only create a project, but to be able to explain it well.
Berzowska said that insistence on quality and depth meant the work coming out of Ishii’s lab was always very high-caliber and led to published papers in highly respected publications. “He expected students to do really cool stuff but also to think about how to create a systematic approach to this new field he had invented,” she said. “That’s part of why he’s been so influential—he didn’t just push for cool hacks, he also pushed us to create a framework for how to think about this whole area of tangible interaction.”
This commitment to excellence also attracted the support of companies ranging from Bose, Ford, and Toshiba to NTT Data, Ferrero, and LEGO. LEGO, for instance, collaborated with the Tangible Media group in creating the Record and Play set of toys, which was launched in 2003. The toys were inspired by curlybot, a toy that records and plays back physical motion, using the repetition of gestures to create expressive patterns.
“The notion of turning everyday objects into interfaces or carriers of information was very inspiring to us,” Erik Hansen, tech innovation director at LEGO, wrote in an email.
Through dozens of students, hundreds of projects, and an infinite well of inspiration, Ishii has blazed a trail through entirely new territory in human-computer interaction, combining science, technology, design, and art in unforeseen and unique ways. From this trail are endless offshoots forged by his mentees and colleagues, explorations into yet stranger and more challenging undiscovered worlds.
And as for the road ahead? In his speech accepting the CHI award, Ishii said he sees no specific path ahead of him. Rather, he said, “I charge forward, and a road emerges behind me.”