Course Overview

The first Fall 2013 class meets on September 4th (Wednesdays) at 2-5pm in 5-134


This HCI (Human-Computer Interactions) course will explore the design space of Tangible Bits and Radical Atoms in order to seamlessly couple the dual world of bits and atoms by giving physical form to digital information and computation.

This is a project course with enrollment limited to keep a design studio atmosphere. We will explore different ways of broadening the bandwidth of interaction between people and digital information through Tangible Interfaces and Radical Atoms that help people representing, interacting and collaborating using the full range of human senses and skills.  We will pursue the interfaces that are not only practical, but also aesthetically pleasing and engaging.

Students will design/develop experimental Tangible Interfaces/Radical Atoms, applications, underlying technologies, and/or theories, using concept sketches, posters, physical mockups, and working prototypes. Use of sketches and physical mockups are encouraged to solicit studio discussion. Studio discussions of these ideas using tangible materials will be a vital way to refine designs collaboratively.  Over the course of the semester, each student is required to complete one solo design practice, and two group projects.




In 1997, we presented our vision of “Tangible Bits” at the CHI ’97 conference. We proposed the concept of Tangible User Interface (TUI) that is based on physical embodiment of digital information & computation, in order to go beyond the current dominant paradigm of “Painted Bits” or Graphical User Interface (GUI). Humans have evolved a heightened ability to sense and manipulate the physical world, yet the GUI based on intangible pixels takes little advantage of this capacity. The TUI builds upon our dexterity by embodying digital information in physical space. TUIs expand the affordances of physical objects, surfaces, and spaces so they can support direct engagement with the digital world.

Through the design of a variety of TUIs, however, we have learned that TUIs are limited by the rigidity of “atoms” in comparison with the fluidity of “bits”. TUIs have limited ability to change the form or properties of physical objects in real time. This constraint can make the physical state of TUIs inconsistent with the underlying digital models.


To address this challenge, we presented our new vision, “Radical Atoms”, in 2012. Radical Atoms takes a leap beyond Tangible Bits by assuming a hypothetical generation of materials that can change form and appearance dynamically, becoming as reconfigurable as pixels on a screen.

Radical Atoms is a computationally transformable and reconfigurable material that is bidirectionally coupled with an underlying digital model (bits) so that dynamic changes of physical form can be reflected in digital states in real time, and vice versa.

Radical Atoms is the future material that can transform their shape, conform to constraints, and inform the users of their affordances. Radical Atoms is a vision for the future of human-material interaction, in which all digital information has a physical manifestation so that we can interact directly with it. We no longer think of designing the interface, but rather of the interface itself as material. We may call it “Material User Interface (MUI).”