3D Display You Can Physically Touch

PHOTO: The inFORM machine is a touchable 3D display created by researchers at MIT.PlayTangible Media Group/MIT
WATCH A Shape Shifting Display Screen

Holograms might give the illusion of pictures that you can touch, but a group of researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are going to the next level. Sean Follmer and his colleagues at the Tangible Media Lab have revealed inFORM, a machine that takes a camera feed and transforms it into a 3-D object in the real world in real time.

Follmer said this project is one of the many ways that his advisor, Hiroshi Ishii, is trying to turn digital information into something you can touch. "If you think about things like Skype or video conferencing tools, it misses out on some of the ways we naturally interact," he told ABC News. "Things like hand gestures can be lost when you're collaborating at a distance."

The inFORM machine itself is a grid made up of 900 columns arranged in a 30 x 30 grid. "It's similar to a regular display that has pixels," said Follmer. A 3-D camera sends image information to inFORM, which changes each column's height to mimic what the camera sees.

While it's entertaining to watch inFORM in action, Follmer sees the machine getting traction in the manufacturing world. "Designers and mechanical engineers currently use 3-D printers to prototype their models," he said. "But it can take 10 hours to print. With inFORM, they can instantly render a part."

He also acknowledged that the technology is still very much in its early stages. "30 x 30 is about the size of a thumbtack on a cellphone display," he said. But with a higher resolution, Follmer sees aspects of the technology carrying over to consumer gadgets as well.

"In the future, more and more devices will be able to change their shape," he said. "I envision a future where a device changes shape to better interact with its owner."