Tangible Bits
By Howard Rheingold, Fri Oct 24 08:45:00 GMT 2003

PCs gave us spreadsheets, word processors, outliners, information managers, graphical toolkits that have become part of our cognitive scaffolding along with reading and writing, and the Internet gave us virtual communities and Friendster as a new variety of social organizing. What new ways of thinking and interacting are we likely to experience in a world of Phicons, computational clay, musicBottles, and calm technology?


"At the seashore, between the land of atoms and the sea of bits, we are now facing the challenge of reconciling our dual citizenship in the physical and digital worlds. Our windows to the digital world have been confined to flat rectangular screens and pixels, or 'painted bits.' While our visual senses are steeped in the sea of digital information, our bodies remain in the physical world. The vision of Tangible Bits is to provide seamless coupling between these two very different worlds of bits and atoms."

Hiroshi Ishii, Head, Tangible Media Group, MIT Media Lab

You can tell from the quote above that Hiroshi Ishii is a computer scientist with a poet's soul. I first met him more than ten years ago, when I was writing about virtual reality. Ishii, then a researcher at the NTT Human Interface Laboratories, was working with a physical object that served as a virtual bridge between two physical spaces - a Clearboard that one researcher could write on in Tokyo and a colleague could read and write on in Palo Alto, as if they were working on opposite sides of the same clear, writeable surface. Ishii was going in the very opposite direction of the virtual reality researchers I was interviewing at that time: instead of trying to immerse people in totally simulated artificial worlds, Ishii was looking at ways to add computation to physical objects, to grant them some of the powers of virtual worlds. He's still at it, and I must say that he and his students have made real progress into a totally new dimension of human-computer interface - one that is liberated from the "flat rectangular screen" and spilled into the world of physical places and things.

Ishii has been very busy since we first met, first in Germany, then Canada, and then at Media Lab, where he has co-directed the Things That Think program and eventually started the Tangible Media program. When I first visited him at Media Lab in the late 1990s, he showed me a number of projects that poetically or practically bridged the realms bits and atoms, like the musicBottles - "uncorking each bottle releases the sound of a specific instrument and controls the colored light projected onto a custom table" - and "phicons" - "physical icons" that enable manipulation of complex visual simulations through physical motion of objects. He was also very interested in the concept originally proposed at Xerox PARC, of calm technology, in which relatively subtle signals at the periphery of awareness conveyed information, like the pinwheels in Ishii's laboratory that spun faster when network traffic increased.


I ran into Hiroshi Ishii again recently, in Linz, Austria, where his group's "Get In Touch" exhibit was presented at Ars Electronica 2003. Moving aside the dinner plates at a Linz restaurant, Ishii opened his laptop and enthusiastically demoed his latest work. Ishii is nothing if not passionate - a man on a mission: "Pixels impoverish the senses," he told me with real fervor. Perhaps it's a lifelong passion - he likes to note that he has been playing with personal digital assistants since he got his hands on an abacus as a toddler in Japan.

Through the years, he and his students have energetically explored the problem space of tangible bits. Unlike most Media Lab demos, some of their work is being turned to present-day practical problems, like the IP Network Design Workbench that enables network planners to explore complex system effects by moving around digitally enhanced nodes and links embedded in physical objects on a SenseTable. He showed me a prototype for a globular lamp that can sit on a desk and be tuned to subtly change color or intensity according to changes in the weather, the stock market, network traffic, your auction on ebay. He had projects experimenting with illuminating clay that makes it possible to create and manipulate complex geological landscape simulations by shaping clay with your hands.

It became clear that Ishii's team was dealing with something more radical than a new computer interface - granting computation capabilities to physical objects and linking virtual worlds with physical manipulations is getting into a wholly different way of thinking about and dealing with computers, and with our own embodiment. We are only beginning to recognize that populations who amplify their thinking and mediate their social interactions through computing devices begin to change the way they think and act.

PCs gave us spreadsheets, word processors, outliners, information managers, graphical toolkits that have become part of our cognitive scaffolding along with reading and writing, and the Internet gave us virtual communities and Friendster as a new variety of social organizing. In my previous Feature article, RFID Zeitgeist, I proposed a few disturbing thoughts about the way pervasive computing could alter the ways we think and communicate - a world of sentient things could give rise to technoanimistic superstition and internalized surveillance (the Panopticon works when you believe you are under constant surveillance, whether or not you really are). What new ways of thinking and interacting are we likely to experience in a world of Phicons, computational clay, musicBottles, and calm technology? How do we sort out the beneficial cognitive-social effects from the destructive ones, and how might that knowledge inform design?