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MIT Better World

By Liz Karagianis

An engineer with the sensibility of an artist, Ishii is determined to bridge the gap between computers and people. By giving digital information physical form, making bits something we can manipulate with our hands and perceive through our senses, he plans to bridge physical space with cyberspace. One day, he says, it might even be possible no longer to need a PC to get information, but rather, the whole physical world might serve as the interface to the virtual world.

An associate professor of media arts and sciences at MIT’s Media Lab, Ishii is founder and director of the Tangible Media Group, which plans to make bits tangible. “Most people use Windows. That system presents intangible pictures on a computer screen which you can’t manipulate without a mouse or keyboard. Instead of making the computer just visual, we also want to make it tactile,” says Ishii, whose project, Tangible Bits, is a whole new paradigm for human computer interaction.

Born in Tokyo, Ishii approaches his work from a holistic, Eastern perspective. “Many people are swept up in the technology and do not understand the importance of the physicality. What I’m trying to do is take advantage of computation but not give up the beauty of the physical world. Techies want only to know how something works. But a great sensitivity is missing. Aesthetics is also very important.

“An engineer just makes things work. But the artist asks profound, provocative questions: What feelings does this evoke? How does this relate to the whole? What does it mean? We need to look at the entire picture,” he says.“Division is dangerous.”


Ishii, who is also co-director of the Media Lab’s Things That Think consortium, couples bits with everyday objects and architectural surfaces and also uses light, sound, air, and water to bring people, digital information, and the physical world together.

His work focuses on that which is invisible. Just like a clock makes time visible, in one project Ishii uses pinwheels to represent digital information, such as network traffic. The pinwheels visualize invisible data and also make it tangible. The information actually physically exists in the pinwheels and the wind it creates.

Another tool is InTouch, which may enhance telephone communication. This technology creates the sensation that people, separated by distance, are touching the same physical object.

And musicBottles, is a physical container for digital information that appeals to our senses. Three glass bottles sit on a pedestal of synchronized colored light, and each bottle has a sensor in its neck so when you lift each lid, you hear classical music. One bottle releases the sound of the violin, another the bass or piano.

“The bottles are not so much about music as they are about possibility, the potential for design. You’re imagining all the possible contents which might come into the bottles. People bring to them their own stories,” Ishii says.

“The important thing is potential. You can create a life that is more exciting, interesting, meaningful, more poetic, more aesthetically pleasing. I just show one example, music, but everything is possible if you can imagine it.”

Ishii and his colleagues have developed several projects, and corporate sponsors are already turning the ideas into products. A spin-off company, Ambient Devices, recently produced a tangible data device that’s a glowing sphere. It’s wirelessly connected to the Internet and displays weather and traffic forecasts. And by changing colors, it also can track the stock market.

Much of Ishii’s work has great implications for urban planning and landscape design. His illuminating clay, for example, allows designers to immediately see the implications of their design on the world. They can determine how water will flow, how shadows will be cast, and they even can flatten the side of a hill with their hands to instantly see if the change will lead to less erosion.


“I love the computer, but I also hate it,” Ishii says.“It’s a wonderful, powerful way to represent abstract, dynamic information, but there are areas where it’s much better and makes more sense to present information in a way that is physical. I love the physical world. There is a joy to touching things.

“I really want to make good use of this work in education, to help people, especially kids, learn to think using this new media. We want to make people excited to learn, to really empower people’s thinking, and to make learning rewarding and more fun.

Tangible Bits is like wearing a pair of eyeglasses to help us see the invisible. Maybe working with the invisible sounds crazy, he says, but electricity is invisible and we no longer question that. “Five hundred years ago, no one had electricity in their houses, but over time, we brought it into our awareness. I hope my work will do the same thing.”