One of the latest inventions at the MIT Media Lab is inFORM, a Dynamic Shape Display. Picture an area of 900 individual pegs that move dynamically based on the hand motions of someone across the room—or across the ocean.

“The idea is physical telepresence. People can point, touch, and manipulate objects remotely over long distance,” says Hiroshi Ishii, co-inventor of the project with Daniel Leithinger and Sean Follmer.

inFORM is a giant step toward Ishii’s dream to bridge the gap between computers and people. For the past 20 years, Ishii—associate director of MIT’s Media Lab and the Jerome B. Wiesner Professor of Media Arts and Sciences—has had a glaring vision to give digital information physical form. By making bits something that we can manipulate with our hands and perceive through our senses, he aims one day to bridge physical space with cyberspace. Imagine, he says, the day we will no longer need a computer to get digital information, but the whole physical world could become an interface to the virtual world.

inFORM makes it possible to create sculptures by manipulating the surface of the pegs, and yet, your hands never actually touch the display. Instead, hand movements are made before a computer screen in another city. The display makes it possible for a user to virtually turn the pages of a book, grab an object, say, a flashlight, and move it.

Ishii’s colleagues at the Media Lab already are testing inFORM with urban planners, since they could build and adjust models in real time over great distances, reflecting changes immediately in the underlying digital model. And it would be useful, Ishii says, for people to collaborate without having to travel. In addition, because inFORM gives physical form to computation, it could aid in the health care industry—CT scans could be swiftly browsed in layers to help better visualize 3-D data—and it also could be used in other industries that use vast amounts of data.

Ishii’s latest vision, as founder of the Tangible Media Group, is called Radical Atoms, a dream to make atoms dance. His goal is to create a hypothetical generation of materials that can dynamically change form and appearance.

Ishii believes that soon phones, computers, and furniture will be able to communicate with us. He’s now working on TRANSFORM, a project where furniture and other materials can change shape. Consider, he says, patients in wheelchairs or those with back pain. A hospital bed could change shape to provide relief or comfort.

Ishii believes that the future is not to predict but to invent.

“So we have to dream up what kind of future we want to see,” he says. “We’ll all be gone by 2100, but our grand-grandchildren will still be living, and in this way, life will never end. I tell students: ‘We must have vision; we must become pioneers, to shape our own mountain from the ground up, and then become the first explorer to conquer the new summit.’”

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