Tangible Map

Press Release

MIT Design Lab Press Release 


 • MIT's Design Lab has created a Tangible Map, allowing students to quickly access data about their environment with 3 dimensional tangible user interface.

 • Researchers experimented with 3D printing to create the map and will release an open source digital version of MIT for students and hackers to use.

 • The map is a public installation, which will allow future research into user interfaces and interactive storytelling about the digital environment.


FEBRUARY 15TH, 2017 - CAMBRIDGE, MA. MIT has a massive campus - and getting around it can be a real challenge for newcomers. Even more daunting is the layer of digital sensors and information being brought on line in an ever more digital future. As cheap sensing, computing, and networking explodes throughout our world, managing this information become more important in understanding our cities and our landscapes.

To help visitors to the campus, researchers at the MIT Design Lab created a Tangible Map. By combining 3D printing, light and detailed model buildings, the map allows visitors to visualize up to date events throughout the campus environment. The map allows visitors to the campus to explore the wide variety of data available about the campus by touching buildings directly.

Understanding Data through Design

The Design Lab wanted to radically rethink the way we access information and data. By blending static information with animated data, the map allows viewers to revisualize the campus through data modes modes. Colors can be used to indicate special points of interest, such as bike racks or campus art. Key to the project was connecting to streaming sources of data directly from campus services that are usually hidden to visitors.

“Data visualization is an established field, but is generally based on static information”, said Will Walker, an MIT researcher working on the project. “We wanted to provide a way for people to explore the landscape of data the campus is creating.”

To explore the new UI for the map, the team observed the ways that users reacted to touch and light. They found that using animations across the entire 10 foot platform was important to helping people find important points across the hundreds of campus buildings. At the same time, centralizing information in a corner of the map makes it easier for people to find out what they’re looking for.

Creating a Touchable Map

One of the key points the team was address was the lack of texture in our everyday interfaces. As our phones, tablets and computers increasingly rely on touch screens, our interaction with texture, form and temperature can be neglected. Future interfaces might be able to use our sense of touch to convey other information in a way that creates a unique experience.

To achieve this with the tangible map, the team turned to 3D printing and parametric design. In parametric design, a program is used to generate features or components using a script. After recreating the campus as a 3D map, the team created a software algorithm to allow the buildings to interlock with one another, like a puzzle. The team then released the entire 3D printable MIT campus as a map, to let other students hack the designs.

Storytelling in a Smarter Environment

Over time, many departments at MIT have created sources of data within the campus-including energy usage and security data, to name a few-but the ability to view and understand this information has been limited to a few specialists. Looking forward, the team is excited to help build dynamic visualizations that will tell many stories about the campus in real-time.

Installing the Tangible Map is also giving the team an advantage - a built in audience. The new MIT ATLAS center is the first place that many new visitors to the campus will come for services. The team is able to observe people exploring the interface for the first time to better understand and improve upon their design. This kind of study is called user-centric design. By watching people in action, researchers can fine tune the interface to more clearly showcase data. So pay attention the next time you visit MIT - you might find yourself taking a tangible interface for a test drive.

About the Design Lab

At MIT, the Design Laboratory exists within a context of broad-based technological innovation, and it builds upon the unique advantages offered by this setting. It pursues research, executes practical design and art projects, and engages in scholarship and criticism.

It is organized as a collection of multidisciplinary research and project teams, and it is not constrained by the traditional boundaries among design, planning and engineering professions and disciplines.

Generally, the Laboratory’s projects engage new technologies and their potential to enable fresh and highly effective solutions to problems of substantial social, economic, and cultural importance. The Laboratory is particularly interested in the emerging possibilities of new information technologies, new material, fabrication, and construction technologies, new ways of providing functionality at micro and nano scales, new techniques for engineering biological materials and structures, and new planning and management strategies. It is concerned not only with the design of individual products, systems, buildings, and urban areas, but also with the roles that these elements play in larger urban, regional, and global systems and their long-term sustainability.

For further information or media inquiries, please contact

Will Walker