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Tangible Media Group Inflates Curiosity at the RCA

On 14 October, Professor Hiroshi Ishii explained the theory of 'radical atoms' to a packed lecture theatre at the RCA. 'Radical atoms' is a guiding principle behind the work of the Tangible Media Group at MIT Media Lab, a research group founded by Professor Ishii to explore ways of giving digital information a tangible form. Professor Ishii was at the RCA along with researchers from the Tangible Media Group as part of Inflating Curiosity, a three-day workshop celebrating the ongoing relationship between the College and Tangible Media Group.

The theory of 'radical atoms' imagines a hypothetical future generation of materials, which can change shape and properties in response to data, transforming the way we perceive, sense, understand and interact with information. The concept of 'radical atoms' envisions future human–material interactions in which all digital information has a physical manifestation.

During his talk, Professor Ishii showed a video of Transform, a project proposing ways that shape display technology can be integrated into our everyday lives as interactive, shape-changing furniture. The video showed a tabletop made of pixel=like blocks, programmed to take different physical forms; it created a shape to support a tablet and became a custom-sized bowl to hold fruit. The furniture was both able to remember users’ settings and preferences as well as respond to their movements and information communicated from their devices. Rather than considering ways to design interfaces, the 'radical atom' approach considers the interface itself as material.

Professor Ishii described the research carried out by the Tangible Media Groups as creating a ‘new medium of representation’. Potential applications include medicine, he envisions a tactile CT scan that can enable a surgeon to feel the texture and stiffness of a tumour before operating. Professor Ishii also stressed that design and artistic vision are central to the application and development of future tangible interfaces. Therefore a cross-disciplinary approach is vital; while scientific rigour is necessary to development and testing of new technologies, design informs how they may be put to use. The Inflating Curiosity workshop provided an opportunity for an interdisciplinary discussion between the two institutions to begin.

As part of the event, Felix Heibeck and Jeifei Ou from the Tangible Media Group hosted a workshop with 22 participants invited from programmes across the RCA including Textiles, Innovation Design Engineering, Information Experience Design, Fashion, Architecture and Design Products. Participants were introduced to ways of making and controlling transformable fabric structures that harness air for shape-change, working with a new pneumatic technology brought in from the MIT Media Lab. Through experimenting with these methods and approaches, the workshop provided an opportunity for participants to consider new interactions with future dynamic materials and to discuss the needs of a tangible world with 'radical atoms'. 

The examination of the intersection of design, technology and science from different angles, was a focus for the workshop. Helene Steiner, who organised, curated and moderated the event explained: ‘The hands-on workshop created a space where different disciplines met and created a culture of common understanding, enabling work across borders. The goal was to introduce technology and then create meaning, using art and design to define philosophical agendas, create artistic interpretation, design aesthetics and explore contextual designs.’ The outcomes of the workshop ranged from philosophical installations about death and life to tangible games, walking creatures, and wearable applications.

Alongside Professor Ishii, several researchers from RCA and MIT presented different considerations of interactive, responsive and tangible design addressing the subject from historical, sensory, technical, material, biological and scientific viewpoints. PhD candidates from the College – Emily Candela, Bruna Petreca and Veronica Ranner – gave presentations alongside Felix Heibek, Jifei Ou, and Lining Yao from MIT. Helene described the result as ‘a collision of ideas between artists, designers, scientists and engineers. The event felt like a perfect marriage between two institutions where design fed into technology and technology fed into design.’

Inflating Curiosity created a platform for future exchanges, collaborations and events between the RCA and the Tangible Media Group. The website will feature future opportunities for collaboration and act as a link through which everyone from the RCA and MIT Media Lab can connect, ask questions and create new ideas. 

All talks from Inflating Curiosity can be watched online and further information about participants in the workshop and its outcomes can be found here.

For more information on how to apply as a visiting student email: [email protected]