Feb 27, 2009

Tangible User Interfaces Part I: Siftables

In 1997, the vision of tangible user interfaces, also known as TUI's, was outlined by Hiroshi Ishii and Brygg Ullmer of the Tangible Media Group at MIT, in their paper, "Tangible Bits: Towards Seamless Interfaces between People, Bits, and Atoms


"(pdf). According to this vision, "the goal of Tangible Bits is to bridge the gaps between both cyberspace and the physical environment, as well as the foreground and background of human activities." This article is is a must-read for anyone interested in "new" interactive technologies.

The pictures in the article of the metaDesk, transBoard, activeLENS, and ambientRoom, along with the references, are worth taking at least a glance of this seminal work.


Another must-read is Hiroshi Ishii's 2008 article,
Tangible Bits: Beyond Pixels (pdf). In this article, Ishii provides a good overview of TUI concepts as well as the contributions of his lab to the field since the first paper was written.

Related tothe Tangible User Interface research is the work of the Fluid Interfaces Group at MIT. The Fluid Interfaces Group was formerly known as the Ambient Intelligence Group, and many of the group's projects incorporate concepts related to TUI and ambient intelligence. According to the Fluid Interfaces website, the goal of this
research group is to "radically rethink the human-machine interactive experience. By designing interfaces that are more immersive, more intelligent, and more interactive we are changing the human-machine relationship and creating systems that are more responsive to people's needs and actions, and that become true "accessories" for expanding our minds."

The Siftables project is an example of how TUI and fluid interface (FI) interaction can be combined.
Siftables is the work of
David Merrill and Pattie Maes, in collaboration with Jeevan Kalanithi, and was brought to popular attention through David Merrill's recent TED talk:

David Merrill's TED Talk: Siftables - Making the digital physical
-Grasp Information Physically

"Siftables aims to enable people to interact with information and media in physical, natural ways that approach interactions with physical objects in our everyday lives. As an interaction platform, Siftables applies technology and methodology from wireless sensor networks to tangible user interfaces. Siftables are independent, compact devices with sensing, graphical display, and wireless communication capabilities. They can be physically manipulated as a group to interact with digital information and media. Siftables can be used to implement any number of gestural interaction languages and HCI applications....
Siftables can sense their neighbors, allowing applications to utilize topological arrangement
..No special sensing surface or cameras are needed."



Siftables Music Sequencer from Jeevan Kalanithi on Vimeo.

http://web.media.mit.edu/~dmerrill/images/music-against-wood-320x213.jpg

More about Siftables:

Rethinking display technology (Scott Kirsner, Boston Globe, 7/27/08)
TED: Siftable Computing Makes Data Physical
Siftables: Toward Sensor Network User Interfaces
(pdf)

It seems that people really like the Siftable concept, or they don't see the point. I found the following humerous critique of Siftables on YouTube:

"Imagine if all the little programs you had on your iphone were little separate chicklets in your pocket.
You'd lose em.
Your cat would eat em.
You'd vacuum them up.
They'd fall down in the sofa.
They'd be all over the car floor.
You'd throw them away by mistake..."


In my opinion, it is exciting to learn that perhaps some of this technology has the potential of becoming main-stream.

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