Tag Archives: Tangible Media Group

MIT is developing shape-shifting interfaces

Thanks to MIT’s Tangible Media Group, interfaces that bend, hinge and curl will soon be a reality. 

Imagine if your iPad case automatically lifted up each time you received a message, or your Post-It notes folded down as you checked an item off your to-do list. Well, that may soon be a reality thanks to a team from MIT’s Tangible Media Group who has unveiled a technology for the rapid digital fabrication of customized thin-film shape-changing interfaces.


By combining the thermoelectric characteristics of copper with thermally sensitive polyethylene, the researchers were able to actuate the shape of the flexible circuit composites directly. The development of UniMorph can be broken down into a few steps, which begins with designing a digital model of the pattern in CadSoft EAGLE or Adobe Illustrator and then fabricating the structure using a standard printer, copper etching, hydrogen peroxide and hyrdochloric acid — the entire process is explained in great detail here.

The base of the interface is made up of two thin layers of material: Kapton on top, plastic polyethylene on the bottom. When these are heated up either using a third layer of copper conduits or exposure to light, they expand at different rates. This will cause the bottom layer to pull up the edges of the top, thereby creating a curling effect.

Layer Composition

Passive actuation can leverage access heat, like that given off from a lightbulb or the sun, to create simple shape transformations. Meanwhile, more complex and active shape-actuation can be achieved by designing resistive heating patterns into a flexible circuit. The uniMorph composite also allows for the embedding of additional electronics such as sensors, LEDs and MCUs.

Not only can the film bend, curl, twist and open like a flower, but uniMorph’s unique capabilities unlock the potential for things like the aforementioned smart Post-It notes and iPad covers, as well as responsive bookmark/reading lights that bend into place as you navigate the page.


According to Creative Applications, the listed examples each run on custom Arduino-compatible boards, and in some cases, the flexible circuits are produced in such a way that the ATmega328P can be soldered right on top. Intrigued? You can read all about the project in its paper here, or simply check out its video below.

MIT Media Lab’s morphing table has Atmel under the hood

Tangible Media Group has created a shapeshifting display that lets users interact with digital information in a tangible way. 

As previously shared on Bits & Pieces, MIT Media Lab’s Tangible Media Group has devised a morphing table with several ATmega2560 MCUs under the hood. The installation was recently exhibited at the Cooper-Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum in New York, and can be seen in action below!


inFORM is described its creators as a dynamic shape display that can render 3D content physically, so users can interact with digital information in a tangible way. In order to make that a reality, the table is equipped with 900 individually actuated white polystyrene pins that make up the surface in an array of 30 x 30 pixels. The interactive piece can display 3D information in real-time and in a more accurate and interactive manner compared to the flat rendering often created by computer user interface.


This was all accomplished by tasking a Kinect sensor to capture 3D data. This information was then processed with a computer and relayed over to a display, enabling the system to remotely manipulate a physical ball. Aside from being able to produce a controlled physical environment for the ball, the pins are able to detect touch, pressing down and pulling.


An overhead projector provides visual guidance of the system, with each pin capable of actuating 100mm and exerting a force of up to 1.08 Newtons each. Actuation is achieved via push-pull rods that are utilized to maximize the dense pin arrangement — making the display independent of the size of the actuators. The table is driven by 150 ATmega2560 based Arduino PCBs arranged in 15 rows of vertical panels, each with 5×2 boards. The boards then communicate with a PC over five RS485 buses bridged to USB. Meanwhile, graphics are rendered using OpenGL and openFrameworks software.

“One area we are working on is Geospatial data, such as maps, GIS, terrain models and architectural models. Urban planners and architects can view 3D designs physically and better understand, share and discuss their designs,” the team writes. “Cross sections through Volumetric Data such as medical imaging CT scans can be viewed in 3D physically and interacted with. We would like to explore medical or surgical simulations. We are also very intrigued by the possibilities of remotely manipulating objects on the table.”


Its creators are hoping to spark several collaborations with everyone from urban planners and architects, to designers and modelers, to doctors and surgeons. The display could be used as an alternative to 3D printing low-resolution prototypes as well as rendering 3D data — ranging from construction plans and CT scans — that a user will be able to interact with by physically molding the pins.

Interested? A detailed paper of the project by can be found here.