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Brygg Ullmer, Tangible Media Group, MIT Media Lab


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SIGGRAPH'98: full paper
CHI'99: extend abstract, published video (part 1 / part 2)


Current conventional wisdom holds that all manners of devices will be connected to the Internet, and transformed into “information appliances” which might ease our work and play.  However, there are currently very few ways to bridge the user interface gap between physical devices and online content, outside of the traditional computer interface of URLs, hyperlinks, and graphical widgets. While reasonably effective in the desktop PC context, these elements rapidly become less plausible in the context of lighter-weight, physically situated interaction contexts.

With the mediaBlocks project, we have looked to new kinds of tangible user interfaces (TUIs) for ways to minimize the complexity and overhead of interaction with online digital media.  In particular, we have developed a TUI based upon mediaBlocks: small wooden blocks that serve as physical icons (“phicons”) for the containment, transport, and control of online media.  MediaBlocks do not actually store media internally.  Instead, they are embedded with digital ID tags that allow them to function as “containers” for online content, or alternately expressed, as a kind of physically embodied URL.

MediaBlocks interface with media input and output devices such as video cameras and projectors, allowing digital media to be rapidly “copied” from a media source and “pasted” into a media display.  MediaBlocks are also compatible with traditional GUIs, providing seamless gateways between tangible and graphical interfaces.  Finally, mediaBlocks are used as physical “controls” in tangible interfaces for tasks such as sequencing collections of media elements.


The mediaBlocks research was first published in SIGGRAPH'98:
Ullmer, B., Ishii, H., and Glas, D.  "mediaBlocks:  Physical Containers, Transports, and Controls for Online Media."  In Computer Graphics Proceedings / SIGGRAPH'98, July 19-24, 1998, pp. 379-386. (Acrobat)
The mediaBlocks video and an extended abstract were also published in CHI'99:
Ullmer, B., and Ishii, H. "mediaBlocks: Tangible Interfaces for Online Media." In Extended Abstracts of CHI'99, May 15-20, 1999, pp. 31-32. (Acrobat)

The published video (posted in two parts) is online at:

First section: media containment and transport (9.8 MB)
Second section: media control and manipulation (12.4 MB)

The mediaBlocks research was also described in the March/April 1999 issue of the Media Lab's Frames publication, and in the July/August 1999 Technology Review magazine, page 20.


A number of people have been active with the mediaBlocks project.  The project is advised by Prof. Hiroshi Ishii.  Major collaborators with implementation include:
Dylan Glas (MIT), Summer 1997
Paul Grayson (MIT), Fall 1997-Fall 1998
John Alex (Brown), Spring 1998
Other people who've provided major project support include John Underkoffler, Paul Yarin, Jay Lee, and Andy Dahley.

Partial support has come from the Media Lab Things That Think consortium and sponsors IBM, Mitsubishi, Steelcase, Intel, SGI, and Canon.

For more information, please contact Brygg Ullmer (

 Last updated 01/01/2001, Brygg Ullmer /