Those of you who've seen The Wolverine, remember that crazy self-adjusting gurney thing that Master Yashida was lying on? That might not be as far off a piece of technology as you'd think. A team of researchers at MIT Media Lab's Tangible Media Group have created this mind-blowing Dynamic Shape Display with a similar vertical-pixel-grid set-up:
Called inFORM, the system provides a fascinating way for one party to physically manipulate objects at the other's location. It has to be seen in action to be believed:
The way it works is surprisingly straightforward, at least from a hardware perspective. Overhead at each user's location is a projector to provide the colors and illumination, and a Kinect to read the user's gestures. Below the bed of rectilinear pins—the display, as it were—is a one-to-one farm of actuators. A computer off to the side runs the software, i.e. the secret sauce that makes it all run.
The physicality of inFORM's current iteration can't do undercuts, so we're a ways off from, say, someone being able to remotely make you a sandwich (though they could conceivably spin and hurl a circle of pizza dough). But the inFORM team has their sights set higher, as they're aiming at the design, planning, and medical industries.
We are currently exploring a number of application domains for the inFORM shape display. 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. We are collaborating with the urban planners in the Changing Places group at MIT on this.
In addition, inFORM would allow 3D Modelers and Designers to prototype their 3D designs physically without 3D printing (at a low resolution).
Finally, 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.
On that last note, I am hoping the sandwich thing comes to pass.