Udayan Umapathi believes that humans are losing the battle against phones and laptops. Screens enslave us. Programs vampirize our brains. To fight this digital overload, he is working on “calm interfaces”–user experiences that don’t constantly demand our attention and use natural elements to make us connect to the physical world that has been intimately tied to our species for the last 2.8 million years.
For Umapathi, a researcher at MIT Media Lab, the element that could restore that natural connection is water. “Water,” he tells me, “is a natural material which by itself is a symbol of being calm.” And water droplets, specifically, have tremendous potential to serve as computing interfaces. So Umapathi and his colleagues at MIT’s Tangible Media Group developed Programmable Droplets for Interaction. Through a technique called “electrowetting,” the researchers can use a current to control droplets placed on a grid; they can make the droplets move, morph into different shapes, merge together, and split apart. The effect is magical.
A Display That Makes You Smile–And Breathe
The entire thing may sound bizarre until you realize that it’s just a graphical display that uses water droplets of various sizes and shapes to communicate information. One potential application is a mirror that, when steamed, allows someone to display a message from a smartphone. Write “I love you” on your screen, and the mirror magically reproduces it using EWOD right in front of the person brushing his or her teeth after a hot shower.
Perhaps you are thinking, like I did, that this specific application would be as intrusive and annoying as a phone displaying a pop-up showing you a message. Umapathi thinks otherwise, arguing that a message in a mirror isn’t nearly as annoying as a phone pinging you: “If you think about it, in your real life whenever you see steam on a mirror or rain droplets on a glass window, you naturally play with them. We are tapping into what is occurring in day-to- day activity to create a sense of excitement.” It is a design scenario, he argues, that is “analogous to the way an outline of words written earlier in the condensation on a mirror magically reappear after a shower.” The larger idea is to provoke surprise and delight, the way only the natural world can.
To illustrate his point, he cites Guillermo del Toro’s Academy Award-winning film The Shape of Water : “There is a beautiful scene in which Eliza [the human protagonist] controls some droplets on a window pane. It is this kind of wonder and fantasy we are trying to capture [with our calm interface].”
He has a point. By integrating a display into something that already has a powerful emotional component, the act of communicating becomes a lot more natural and relaxed than any ringtone, vibration, or bright-red numbered badge.
There are more potential applications beyond mirrors that can show love messages. “Imagine thousands of droplets choreographed to dance [in a large public display],” he says. They have already demonstrated that such an interface is possible, with two dancing droplets, and he tells me that they are working to move many more droplets at once to show large animations. Their demonstrations also include a living watercolor palette that mixes color for artists. “Even magicians have asked to collaborate on creating illusions,” he says.
Umapathi believes that this tech–and the other calm interfaces that colleagues are developing at MIT using natural materials like sand and clay–will have many more applications than they can imagine now: He saw designers walking to the kitchen to bring milk and juice to play with and experiment. “This is uncommon with typical computer interfaces. When do you see common household materials integrating so seamlessly with computers?”