Animastage: Tangible Interactive Display

From MIT Media Lab Tangible Media folks, an odd little interactive display: Animastage [2].

The idea is “Hands-on Animated Craft on Pin-based Shape Displays”, i.e., a system that lets you create animated 3D puppet like scenes that move.

The underlying technology is from earlier TML projects [1], which were inspired by player pianos and other pre-digital technologies. This particular system is heavily influenced by puppetry

The creator makes scenes and puppets, and places them on the pin surface. The vertical movement of the pins pushes the figure like a puppet. Programming the actuators animates the scene.

The neatest effect is the “Invisible String Control”, in which the animator wiggles his or her fingers and the animation responds as if they were connected by a string. This effect uses hand tracking via a Leap Motion camera, which is mapped to the actuators.

This effect is far, far more interesting for a viewer than the other more complicated animations.

I was immediately struck by the fact that this effect mainly works—and draws our attention—because the viewer fills in the story from imagination.

The finger motions aren’t necessarily related to the animation in an obvious way (which is also true of marionettes), and we can’t really tell if the hand movements are leading or following the animation. But what we clearly see is the hands controlling the puppets.

This is a general principle of visual interaction: humans unconsciously construct stories and fill in ambiguity form their own imagination. In this case, the design makes good use of this principle, creating a very compelling and entertaining illusion from the simplest parts.


  1. Hiroshi Ishii, Daniel Leithinger, Sean Follmer, Amit Zoran, Philipp Schoessler, and Jared Counts, TRANSFORM: Embodiment of “Radical Atoms” at Milano Design Week, in Proceedings of the 33rd Annual ACM Conference Extended Abstracts on Human Factors in Computing Systems. 2015, ACM: Seoul, Republic of Korea. p. 687-694.
  2. Ken Nakagaki, Udayan Umapathi, Daniel Leithinger, and Hiroshi Ishii, AnimaStage: Hands-on Animated Craft on Pin-based Shape Displays, in Deisgn of Interactive Displays (DIS). 2017: Edinburgh, . https://tangible-fmp.mit.edu/publishedmedia/Papers/636-OTEyO/Published/PDF

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