On the Coastline
The coastline appears where the sea meets the land, but it is
not just a line in the landscape. It is home to living organisms
engaged in a fierce battle for survival between the tides, struggling
by turns with heat and dryness followed by rough pounding waves.
At the same time it is a fertile space where light mixes with
water, air, and a host of microorganisms. Here on the border
of sea and land they have blossomed into myriad unique forms.
Many millions of years ago our ancestors also emerged from the
ocean across this border.
There is another coastline, where the bit meets the atom.
Now we are preparing to cross this coastline between the "land"
of the physical world (atoms) and the "sea" of
digital information (bits). But this is no easy crossing.
Our visual and auditory sense organs are steeped in the sea of
digital information, but our bodies remain imprisoned in the physical
world. Bombarded by waves of bits emitted from hundreds and thousands
of computer screens we are losing the sense of our bodies and
the spaces we inhabit. Able to breathe only through our lungs
we clutch the plastic mouse and begin to drown in the flood of
pixels gushing out of ubiquitous square screens.
In a time far distant from this age when architectural space
is buried under photons flowing out of computer screens, our ancestors
inhabited a space conceived on the model of perspective that was
continuous with the body. But today, on the other side of the
countless screens which fracture our space, there extends a strange,
discontinuous space composed of infinitely hyperlinked bit fragments.
It is dizzying to behold, like a cubist painting. In this space,
one has no sense of one's own body, nor are there traces of the
bodies of those who have passed through it. All we see are dry,
clean bits beyond the glass like rows of artificial light.
The key idea of "Tangible Bits" is to "give
physical form to digital information," and thereby to
"make bits directly manipulable with our hands, and enable
environmental recognition of information on the periphery of consciousness."
This digital information has been sunk deep below the water with
only its indistinct shadow visible on the surface. But by pulling
it back up into the world above the water's surface, into the
air that we breathe, we will be able to touch it directly and
confirm its existence. Then, by fusing this materialized information
into architectural spaces existing in social context, it will
be possible to transform architectural space itself into an
interface between human beings and the world of digital information.
This is the dream of Tangible Bits.
In this presentation, I am going to introduce the iterative design
process done by myself and the members of the Tangible Media Group
in pursuit of this vision. These works were created neither as
pieces of art aspiring after aesthetic value nor as technological
demos meant to solve practical problems. Rather, as media meant
to explore the concept of Tangible Bits, they were designed
as intellectual tools to keep us asking questions no one has ever
asked before. In the end the completed works do have a certain
technical utility and some artistic aspects, but they were not
created in order to bridge the enormous gap between art and technology.
The goal of our research is the creation of new concepts and
We employ the latest digital technology and industrial design
methods as a means of visualizing and examining those concepts.
Tangible Bits is like a pair of eyeglasses meant to help people
see what would otherwise remain invisible. We invite you to
put on these conceptual eyeglasses and see the world in a new
perspective. These eyeglasses should help you to see everyday
objects and architectural spaces in a new way, as "interfaces
with the digital world." We invite you to experience a new
and yet somehow familiar sense of what an interface should be,
something different from clicking on the plastic mouse, something
which gestures toward a new relation between information and ourselves.
Tangible Media Group
MIT Media Laboratory
Hiroshi Ishii is a tenured Associate Professor of Media Arts
and Sciences, at the MIT Media Lab. He co-directs Things That
Think (TTT) consortium and directs Tangible Media Group. Hiroshi
Ishii's research focuses upon the design of seamless interfaces
between humans, digital information, and the physical environment.
At the MIT Media Lab, he founded and directs the Tangible Media
Group pursuing a new vision of Human Computer Interaction (HCI):
"Tangible Bits." His team seeks to change the "painted
bits" of GUIs to "tangible bits" by giving physical
form to digital information.
Ishii and his students have presented their vision of "Tangible
Bits" at a variety of academic, industrial design, and artistic
venues (including ACM SIGCHI, ACM SIGGRAPH, Industrial Design
Society of America, Ars Electronica, Centre Pompidou, Victoria
and Albert Museum), emphasizing that the development of tangible
interfaces requires the rigor of both scientific and artistic
review. A display of many of the group's projects took place at
the NTT InterCommunication Center (ICC) in Tokyo in summer 2000.
A new, three-year-long exhibition "Get in Touch" that
features the Tangible Media group's work opened at Ars Electronica
Center (Linz, Austria) in September 2001.
Prior to MIT, from 1988-1994, he led a CSCW research group at
the NTT Human Interface Laboratories, where his team invented
TeamWorkStation and ClearBoard. In 1993 and 1994, he was a visiting
assistant professor at the University of Toronto, Canada. He received
B. E. degree in electronic engineering, M. E. and Ph. D. degrees
in computer engineering from Hokkaido University, Japan, in 1978,
1980 and 1992, respectively.
Text originally published in ArtFutura's 2005 catalog.