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Photograph by Andrew Too Boon Tan, Getty

Type Me a Tower: Assembling Real Structures With Only a Keyboard

This was the dream, right? To go from bits, from 101001110011110000, to actual atoms, to sit at your computer and—just by typing—manipulate things in the real world. Like, for example, putting blocks on top of blocks, building bridges, toppling towers, just by tapping commands on a touch screen.

Eleven years ago, science fiction writer Bruce Sperling imagined how, from a distance, we might stack, assemble, and disassemble not just tinker toys but also “big hefty skull-crackingly solid things that you can pick up and throw.” Making digital information physical, he said, is “the world that needs conquering.”

Well, sound the trumpets. Or maybe the piccolos. The conquering has begun. And in the most charming way.

Dancing Floors

This month engineers at the Tangible Media Group at MIT unveiled a new way to stack blocks. It’s so cool to see. It’s like you’re sitting in your living room and suddenly the floor magically starts pirouetting up and down, gently moving the furniture, stacking the furniture, toppling the furniture—and with such grace! If Fred Astaire were to come back as a floor with Ginger Rogers as a block, they’d look like this:

Five engineers did this. They are led by the MIT Media Lab’s Professor Hiroshi Ishii, who wanted “to give kinetic ability to otherwise inanimate objects,” which was done by pushing pins. The pins, in turn, were pushed by “tangible user interfaces,” software programs that created all those thrusts, leaps, and—my favorite—the “shadowing” exercise, where a hand moves cubes in one place and the movement is mirrored at a distance. Pretty elegant engineering.

Does this mean that one day somebody far off (maybe on a separate planet) will be able to “build” an identical structure remotely? Or move it? Or take it apart? Or, instead of a floor or carpets or cushions, maybe one day even air can be pushed and pulled to rearrange a distant object? I don’t know where all this leads, but clearly playing with blocks is not what it used to be.

Kinematic? What’s Kinematic?

At the end of the video, having tried ordinary blocks and magnetic blocks, the team switches to what are called “kinematic” blocks. I’d never heard of those. I looked them up.

They aren’t the future. They’re already here, little modules that attach, twist, and wriggle—no cables necessary. They’re suitable for five-year-olds and totally delightful. Adding them to the mix, the team says, creates new “degrees of freedom” for potential users. With pins pushing below and levers moving within, building blocks will soon move like animals.

You don’t see that in the MIT video; their kinematic blocks stay mostly quiet and mysterious, but in German kindergartens, you can see what future blocks might do. Somewhere in space R2D2 is weeping. Take a look:

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This isn’t the first time the Tangible Media Group has worked with pins; They have an amazing video that shows how you can sit in one location and use the pin interface to move distant objects; Your real hands get digitally turned into ‘ghost’ hands, and you can move things in a room you are nowhere near! I think you ought to take a peek … here.

When my producer, Becky, read this post, she told me about a movie, “Big Hero 6” where the build-anything-anytime-anywhere notion becomes a glorious movie fantasy. A boy named Hiro gets to walk on air, because he ‘imagines steps’ and once imagined, they spring into being, right under his feet. This isn’t bits to atoms. This is neurons to atoms…and even the Media Lab isn’t doing that.