Unless you’re a raging Luddite, you probably have electronics pouring out your ears. You have your smartphone, your laptop, your fitness tracker, and God knows what else. But what if one gadget could do it all? That’s what MIT’s Tangible Media Group thinks the future of interface might just be: a serpentine droid, writhing its way across your tabletop to morph into any gadget you want, whether a telephone, a smartwatch, or even a set of exercise weights.
It’s called the LineFORM, a shape-changing interface that they think opens up “new possibilities for display, interaction, and body constraint.” Like everything the Tangible Media Group does, it’s a thought experiment on the future of UI. And that future, according to MIT, isn’t going to be about poking at screens. It’s going to be about bending lines.
As an interface, the LineFORM is as nondescript as it comes. It resembles a bike lock, one that bends itself and snakes around you to mimic the affordances of other gadgets. What’s an affordance? It’s the mechanism through which a dumb object, interacting with a human, is able to accomplish something: for example, the way the steering wheel on your car allows you to drive, or the handle on your teapot allows you to pour.
In essence, what we’re talking about is an intelligent cable. For example, imagine a cable attached to your computer that can bend itself into a phone-like handset when you get a Skype call. Or coil around a lightbulb and power it when you need some light. Or a cable you plug into your smartphone that then oscillates to represent data shooting back and forth. Or even a robot snake that wraps around your arm, tensing at points to help you build muscles.
Although it’s full of robotic actuators, the LineFORM is all about exploring the idea of string figures as an interface medium. Tangible Media Group student Ken Nakagaki says the initial inspiration comes from the cat’s cradle. “What if a cat’s cradle could change its figure in our hands?” he asks. If so, it could explore other design states, as well as simulate affordances and ways of interacting with other objects.
Like its predecessor, the shapeshifting 3-D display InFORM, the LineFORM isn’t so much a prediction about the future of UI as an exploration of that future. But according to Nakagaki, the current paradigm doesn’t make much sense.
“Right now, we have a smartphone that we have to put in an armband when we want to run, which is a different form factor than our smartwatch,” he says. A robot line–or, more appropriately, a LineFORM–can change its shape to be a natural fit to all those circumstances.
The future of the LineFORM isn’t necessarily a serpent robot bike lock that changes shape. Eventually, Nakagaki imagines the LineFORM to be so thin and fully actuated, it’s just a bunch of super strings that we can all weave, wind, and mold things together with.
So right now, the LineFORM might shift from a data cable to a phone shape when you need it to, or transform from a set of weights to an exercise rope. But in the future? You might be able to make CAD models of buildings, or use a heap of LineFORM strands as the medium through which you mix a song. It’s all about the future of UI being physical, instead of virtual.
Either way, though, one thing the Tangible Media Group is emphatic about is that this isn’t a robot as you know it. “These aren’t autonomous agents, like R2-D2 or C-3P0,” Nakagaki says. “They’re just a tool to manipulate information without agency” like any other display. So that squiggling bike lock shouldn’t be thought of as a robot. It’s just another display.