Ullmer dissertation

Tangible Interfaces for Manipulating Aggregates of Digital Information
Brygg Ullmer
MIT Media Laboratory
Completed August 2002

Prof. Hiroshi Ishii, MIT Media Laboratory
Prof. John Maeda, MIT Media Laboratory
Prof. Robert J. K. Jacob, Tufts University


formatted for double-sided printing
formatted for screen (no blank pages)
13 megabytes, 270 pages

Note on upcoming revisions (edited July 2003)


Real streaming video (50 minute presentation + audience questions), and
a direct link in case the previous URL fails.


This thesis develops new approaches for people to physically
represent and interact with aggregates of digital information.
These support the concept of Tangible User Interfaces (TUIs),
a genre of human-computer interaction that uses spatially
reconfigurable physical objects as representations and controls
for digital information. The thesis supports the manipulation
of information aggregates through systems of physical tokens
and constraints. In these interfaces, physical tokens represent
digital information elements and aggregates such as data structures
and parameterized queries. Physical constraints are then used to
map structured compositions of tokens onto a variety of
computational interpretations.

This approach is supported through the design and implementation
of several systems. The mediaBlocks system enables people to
use physical blocks to "copy and paste" digital media between
specialized devices and general-purpose computers, and to physically
compose and edit this content (e.g., to build multimedia
presentations). This system also contributes new tangible interface
techniques for binding, aggregating, and disaggregating sequences
of digital information into physical objects.

Tangible query interfaces allow people to physically express
and manipulate database queries. This system demonstrates ways
in which tangible interfaces can manipulate larger aggregates of
information. One of these query approaches has been evaluated in
a user study, which has compared favorably with a best-practice
graphical interface alternative. These projects are used to support
the claim that physically constrained tokens can provide an effective
approach for interacting with aggregates of digital information.