Getting Ahead of Ourselves with Radical Atoms

TouchProfessor Hiroshi Ishii of the Tangible Media Group at MIT is no longer satisfied with existing technology.  In an attempt to do something truly interesting, he is devoting his research to a future world where Radical Atoms can be controlled by a computer, and brought to life in 3D.

In a primitive, yet compelling, prototype, the group built a computer-controlled pin-art board.  Below is a quick demo:

This conceptual technology offers an exciting alternative to the holograph-dominated future of Star Trek and most sci-fi novels.  Instead of interacting with holograms, we could interact with actual physical manifestations of people.  A conference call would no longer just show an image or hologram of a person, but have an actual object you could touch and provide physical feedback.

Among the many questions the prototype brings up is – do we truly want it this to exist?  Most people are already averse to touch in real life.  Besides handshakes and high-fives, business interactions rarely include hand-holding and games of patty-cake.  On a personal level, touch is one of the more intimate aspects of a relationship, and the physical touching encouraged by inFORM could often be unwelcome.

Still, the research brings forth interesting possibilities in the application of recorded or computer-generated interaction.  What if there was no user at the other end putting their hand on the machine?  What if the computer could realize a physical presence, and completely mimic human behavior?  How would recorded interactions change our lives, from education, to medicine, to home repair?  With a little work, even the current prototype could offer a complete personalized, killer massage.

According to the researchers, it will still be decades before material scientists and nano-engineers reach the point where objects can be materialized out of thin air.  Time will tell whether the Tangible Media Group is creating groundbreaking technology, or if they are simply out of touch.

Written by Andrew Palczewski

About the Author
Andrew Palczewski is CEO of apHarmony, a Chicago software development company. He holds a Master's degree in Computer Engineering from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and has over ten years' experience in managing development of software projects.

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