An Attractive User Interface

The MagPixel toolkit simplifies and reduces the cost of creating magnetic shape displays, enabling experimentation with physical interfaces.

Nick Bild
16 days agoDisplays
Pac-Man implemented in a magnetic shape display (📷: Y. Fan et al.)

Functionality isn’t everything. Digital displays may have taken over as the primary way that we interface with machines, but the tactile satisfaction of physical buttons and switches still holds a unique and irreplaceable charm for many users. This sensory feedback can make interactions feel more intuitive and engaging, providing a sense of control that purely digital interfaces sometimes lack. Moreover, the durability and reliability of physical controls often surpass that of their digital counterparts, making them indispensable in certain applications.

But buttons and switches are not right for every use case, especially where complex interactions are required. No one wants to go back to the days of massive panels of switches to program a computer, for example. Magnetic soft materials may prove to be the right platform for enabling more complex physical interactions with the next generation of devices. These flexible materials are instantly responsive and can be used to build interactive shape displays or support other types of tangible interactions.

The use of magnetic soft materials in human-computer interactions is still a nascent field and the possibilities have as of yet remained largely unexplored, however. Since the technology has not advanced very far, fabrication methods are still in the early stages, making it both challenging and expensive to experiment with. This has created something of a catch-22 — the field needs to be explored further, but fabrication issues make it difficult to explore.

A novel modular toolkit that was designed to simplify the creation of magnetic shape displays seeks to make the technology more accessible and advance the state of the art. Researchers at Zhejiang University have recently described MagPixel, which makes it easy to design a shape display. Using this technique, even a 100-pixel display only costs about one dollar to produce. This will significantly lower the barriers to entry, and the hope is that it will enable exploration of the possibilities offered by this technology.

Using this system, magnetic pixels are created with 3D-printed molds that consist of wall and floor units that are attached to a baseboard. This allows for a creative and interactive hands-on assembly process that is intuitive. Developers can combine design primitives in this way to produce a functional and interactive shape display. Pixels are then formed in the mold by mixing a two-to-one ratio of neodymium powder with a silicone rubber and pouring it in. After a heating process, the interface is ready for use.

Through careful design of the arrangement of the magnetic pixels, the structure can be made to deform or move in desirable ways under the influence of external magnets. In this study, the team demonstrated how MagPixel displays can be altered by simply using handheld magnets.

A number of demonstrations were prepared to show the potential of the system. In one demonstration, the team created an interactive storybook in which creatures in the stories can be made to move to create a more engaging reading experience. Other demonstrations showed how MagPixels can be used to create a physical version of the video game Pac-Man, and make clocks or reminder systems.

Looking ahead, the researchers intend to explore how they can improve the ratio of magnetic powder to silicone to enhance the performance of the technology. They are also looking into an issue in which the magnetic powder can settle to the bottom of the pixels during the curing process. But even as it stands at present, this toolkit is well-suited for experimentation with magnetic shape displays, and may help to bring the technology to a wider audience.

Nick Bild
R&D, creativity, and building the next big thing you never knew you wanted are my specialties.
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