Ken Nakagaki, a researcher at MIT Media Lab, is also an inventor who has created numerous user interfaces.
Just as the name suggests, user interfaces such as mice, keyboards, and displays that we all use everyday are essential to bridging the gap between computers and people, making it possible for information to flow in both directions. An interface is one of the most important items for a person to be able to use a machine, but on the flip side, an interface also imposes limitations on how a person can use a machine.
Eliminating these “limitations due to interfaces” and searching for more direct ways for people and machines to understand each other is the impetus behind the “tangible user interface” concept advocated by Hiiroshi Ishii of MIT Media Lab. Nakagaki has taken Ishii’s ideas and combined them with robotics technology and an understanding of materials to create many innovative user interfaces.
As one example of these interfaces, “LineFORM” was a seminal work by Nakagaki in 2015 in which he demonstrated a rope-shaped interface prototype that wiggled around like a snake. The interface was created by combining together many small motors, and as each individual motor turned and changed the angle of each connection point, the rope could wrap around the user’s arm or hand or change itself into a circle, straight line, or any other shape. This movement was used to convey information from the computer to the user, and the user could also use it to communicate with the computer. The movable parts were modularized in 2016, leading to an improved version of the interface called “ChainFORM” that allowed for extension by connecting and disconnecting individual modules.
Currently, Nakagaki is working on developing a new project known as “HERMITS.” “HERMITS” is a unique project where numerous small robots work in harmony with modules, allowing for docking and the creation of physical machines that can be reconfigured.
While they utilize cutting edge technology, Nakagaki builds these interfaces with consideration for common materials and tools, imbuing them with a playful spirit of innovation. His achievements have earned the praises of international scientific societies related to human-computer interaction (HCI), and they have also been recognized by awards from the realms of design and art. Nakagaki’s flexible way of thinking has allowed for fluid travel back and forth across the space between robots and interfaces, and his achievements have demonstrated exciting possibilities for forging new relationships between people and machines.