Sean Follmer Dissertation Defense

November 14, 2014


MIT Media Lab, E14-244


Designers of interactive products have long sought to match form with function. The physical affordances of a design make it easier for users to interact with products like cameras, car, or music production tools where people need to attend to many tasks simultaneously, and where precision and expressivity is required. Physical affordances provide products and interfaces with many advantages: they provide strong clues for use, often contribute to good ergonomics, users can attend to other tasks visually, and they can take advantage of embodied and distributed cognition by allowing users to off load computation spatially. 

However, devices are becoming more connected and include more functions. Designers often lack the tools to support all of these new features gracefully; they cannot always include the proper physical affordances for each interaction. Instead they often rely on complex on-screen menus, embracing the ease of graphical display while ignoring physical affordances. Follmer's belief is that the physical form of products and devices must reflect this interactivity better.

Follmer's research looks at how we can apply shape-changing and deformable interfaces to address the lack of physical affordances in today's interactive products. Previously, much of the work on shape-changing interfaces and Shape Displays has focused on rendering content physically. This thesis focuses on the role of shape change in providing necessary affordances for interaction. Follmer's belief is that shape-changing UI will become increasingly available in the future, and this work tries to push towards creating a vocabulary and design space for more general-purpose interaction for shape-changing UI.

In this thesis, Follmer introduces tangible interfaces that use their form to adapt to the functions and ways users want to interact with them. Follmer explores two solutions: 1) creating Dynamic Physical Affordances through shape change, 2) user Improvised Physical Affordances through direct deformation and by appropriating existing objects. Novel technical solutions are needed to enable these new interaction techniques; this thesis describes techniques both for actuation and robust sensing for shape-changing and deformable interfaces. Finally, systems that utilize Dynamic Physical Affordances and Improvised Physical Affordances are evaluated to understand patterns of use and performance.

Host/Chair: Hiroshi Ishii


Joe Paradiso, Björn Hartmann

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