Ishii appears on the panel, Interfaces for Humans: Natural Interaction, Tangible Data and Beyond....













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Feeling Interactive

But virtual characters don't fulfill everyone's needs in communicating and interacting with others. Clearly, these digital embodiments are neither humanistic in nature, nor human in reality.

One project that may help humans communicate on a more personal level is inTouch, a haptic (sensing through touch) telecommunication device, celebrating its premiere at SIGGRAPH 98. Developed by Hiroshi Ishii and his Tangible Media group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, applications would include in-house units, like telephones. But this prototype forgoes the traditional handset, as well as the monitor, keyboard and mouse system. "We're trying to go beyond that, because it doesn't really take advantage of the skills our hands have to express the sense of touch," Ishii says, and "we wanted to come up with a new product that had a tangible use."

Tangible Media's inTouch system premieres at S98.

The prototype connects two sets of rollers, one for each user like handsets of a phone. When a user rolls one of his three cylinders, the receiving unit's corresponding roller moves the same way. A user can passively feel the sender's manipulation, or they can both play at moving the rollers simultaneously.

"This isn't just a change in hardware and software, it's a new way of thinking," Ishii says, "of making information more comprehensible." The system "provides some sense of physical presence," which, in the future, could be made to grab and move tools or supplies in engineering models, for example.

Ishii says new technology can be easily added to the prototype model, and he wouldn't be surprised if similar products came up on the market in a few years.

As technology continues to develop applications that are both functional and creative, so humans will also evolve -- personally, professionally, and culturally. Being able to better express who we are and what we think with each other will undoubtedly bring us greater freedoms, but with such profound change also comes new challenges. Our lives will become more intertwined, which may cause greater tensions and rivalries, and computers may drive us to push ourselves faster without pausing to think. The reliance on computers for interaction also may begin to isolate us from our more tangible, face-to-face relationships.

But when asked if the Barbie Cool Looks Fashion Designer isolates children, like Elizabeth, from the real world, Andy Rifkin laughs. Computer time is "integrated into their lives like school-work," he explains, "complementing their lives and making it better." All the letters he's gotten from grateful fathers, for example, writing that they spend more quality time with their daughters than they used to because of the computer software kit, attest to that, he says.


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