Daniel Leithinger: The Face of Tangible Interfaces

Bridges vol. 42, December 2014 / Introductions

By Rosemary Grant 

“In our ideation process, we try to think about hypothetical future technologies and not yet defined consumer needs,” said Daniel Leithinger in a November 2014 interview with Bridges. “As you can imagine, we get a lot of inspiration from science fiction.” 

Leithinger is a graduate research assistant in the Tangible Media Group at the MIT Media Lab. His videos with Tangible Media have recently gotten international attention for their footage of tangible interfaces and interactive shape displays. In other words, people physically interacting with digital content. 

Daniel’s projects have been presented at venues like Ars Electronica, Siggraph, and the Science Center Singapore. In 2014 he collaborated on a project titled Physical Telepresence in which he and fellow members of the Tangible Media Group focused on the concept of shape transmission, creating interaction techniques to manipulate remote physical objects of shared digital content. Through their efforts, they were able to manipulate and move objects from remote locations, in theory having the potential for remote physical collaborations in the future.

“What really got me into my current field of Human Computer Interaction (HCI),” he says, “was a summer internship at the Ars Electronica Futurelab in Linz back in 2004.” Leithinger worked on an exhibit called "Gulliver's World" and became hooked on HCI. “I also received a lot of great support from my advisor professor Michael Haller,” he says, “who started up an HCI research lab in Hagenberg around that time.” 

While finishing his undergraduate degree at the Upper Austria University of Applied Sciences in Hagenberg, he received the Austrian State Prize for Multimedia and the Europrix Top Talent Award. “The prizes my colleagues and I received during our undergrad studies in Hagenberg were very encouraging for us, as we felt that [we] could innovate in the field,” he said on the matter. “So that definitely gave us a lot of momentum to keep going.”

He then went on to work at research institutes like the Futurelab (Linz, Austria), HITLab (Christchurch, NZ), Media Interaction Lab (Hagenberg, Austria), Interactive Media Lab (Singapore), and Disney Research Lab (Pittsburgh, US) before coming to the MIT Media Lab.

This year Leithinger and two other members of the Tangible Media Group gained recognition for their inFORM video, a display of humans interacting with a dynamic shape. The exhibition won the 2014 Laval Virtual Award for industrial design and simulation and portrayed simulated cubes moving physical objects through motion sensors. The Dynamic Shape Display, as it’s called, can render 3D content physically, so users can interact with digital information in a tangible way. Onlookers could watch the scientists moving objects on the table’s surface, and the video even showed videoconference participants moving the objects around, demonstrating their ability to interact physically at a distance.

“inFORM was an interesting project because it became a really great research platform once my colleagues and I finished the hardware,” he says. “We built many applications that we did not think about at all when we first conceived the idea of a shape changing display.” The project also received an overwhelmingly positive response from the general public, having thousands of shares and comments about the project on social media. “That is very rewarding,” he says, “to see my work inspiring others to invent new projects on top of it.”

Leithinger finds he is interested in HCI in part because it allows him to work in so many fields. “It is very multidisciplinary, so I get to work on a lot of different things, ranging from design to mechanical and electrical engineering, computer science and human factors,” he says. And after years of working with tangible interfaces, he has worked in traditional disciplines as varied as engineering, art, media, and programming. 

Over the years, Leithinger has also seen a lot of changes, particularly in computer sensors. Because of this, technical hurdles such as sensing how people interact with objects, challenging only a few years ago, have become simpler, inexpensive, and therefore more accessible. “My colleagues and I believe that current research is shifting more towards mechanical engineering and material science,” he said. “So in the past, a lot of work focused on sensing. Now it's more about programming how materials behave.”

Moving from Austria to the US, plus traveling, has also given him a broader perspective of working in media arts and sciences in different countries. “I have worked in labs in Austria, New Zealand, Denmark, Singapore, and the United States, and researchers in all these countries are constantly exchanging ideas and building on each other’s work,” he says. Leithinger found that people from MIT in particular were comfortable collaborating with different university departments, thus creating more cross-disciplinary research than was usually found in other countries.

MIT’s Media Lab has also affected his work in its “vision-driven research” approach. His advisor Hiroshi Ishii coined this term, influencing how the students talk and work in research groups. “We see three driving factors for design research,” Leithinger says, “technology-driven, needs-driven, and vision-driven.” As the former two depend on currently available technology and market research, they improve on existing research, but fall short when coming up with new ideas. Therefore the vision-driven aspect is necessary for predicting consumer needs. Most of his projects are based on technologies not readily available for consumer products, although Leithinger adds that “we hope [they] may become mainstream in 5 to 10 years.”

Currently the scientist is finishing his Ph.D. at MIT and preparing for the next phase of his career. “I am working on a few experiments on physical telepresence, which I am really excited about,” he says. He finds that academia and commercial labs offer interesting work environments at the moment, as HCI research has moved into the spotlight because of companies like Oculus and Magic Leap. Therefore, after graduation, he plans to continue working with tangible interfaces. 

Daniel Leithinger finds that his biggest achievement is when people tell him they get inspired to think about computers differently after seeing his work. For the interface users who can't envision computers being anything beyond boring black boxes, he wants to expand their understanding of what it means to interact with data. “I’m excited when someone tries out one of my inventions and tells me how they want their future phone or laptop to be more like that,” he says. For a growing world of tech consumers, he plans to make sure that happens.


Interview with Daniel Leithinger conducted November 17, 2014




Rosemary Grant is the BRIDGES Chief Editor and communications manager of the Office of Science and Technology Austria in Washington, DC. Connect with her and the office on Twitter @OSTAustria_DC.