November 22, 2013
In a world where we’re being conditioned to touch screens, a team of MIT researchers is trying to get consumers to, ironically, think different. Imagine a computing system where users located in one location could gesture and these motions would generate various designs, shapes and messages in physical form in a completely different location. It would almost be like reaching into a screen and touching what you see on the other side.
Dubbed inFORM, the interface is comprised of 900 motorized rectangular pegs that can be manipulated using a kinetic-based motion sensor, like Microsoft Kinect. In the demonstration video, you can see how the pegs systematically rise up and take the form of a pair of fabricated hands to play with toys, like a ball, or page through a book. Much like those pinscreen animation office toys, with inFORM, entire physical representations of towns and landscapes can instantly emerge and evolve before your eyes.
“We’re just happy getting people to think about interfacing using their sense of touch in addition to touch screens, which are nothing but pixels and purely visual information,” says Leithinger. “You can now see it can be a lot more than that.”
Envisioned as a kind of “digital clay,” the PhD students originally developed the technology for practical applications, such as architectural modeling. While 3D printers can produce miniature replicas that take as long 10 hours to fully layer and dry, inFORM’s moldable flatbed can instantly model entire urban layouts and modify them on the fly. Geographers and urban planners could similarly produce maps and terrain models. There are potential uses in the medical field as well. A doctor, for instance, might review a 3D version of a CT scan with a patient.
The elaborate system is designed so that each peg is connected to a motor controlled by a laptop. But, the inFORM technology isn’t meant to be a consumer product—not yet at least. “What you’re seeing is the early stages of a completely different kind of technology,” says Leithinger. “So the way we put this interface together wouldn’t be cost-effective enough for the mass market, but there are lessons that can be learned to make something based on the idea of 3D interfacing.”
The creators also don’t want anyone to confuse inFORM with a similar nascent technology called telepresence, where a person’s movements can be transmitted remotely to a different location. Even though telepresence robots like the popular prototype Monty can be controlled from afar to pick up objects, they’re limited to limb movements and other attributes of the human form.
“Our system allows for a lot more improv than these other technologies, like generating an object that interacts with another in real time” says Follmer. “A telepresence robot may be able to pick up a ball, but it’s not as good at using a bucket to pick up a ball.”
As the pair explores the technology’s wide range of potential applications, they’re also aware of the current limitations. For now, the inForm interfacing only works as a one-way system, meaning two people in separate continents won’t be able to use their own 3D surfaces to simultaneously hold hands. It also can’t create complex overhangs where a portion of the formation juts out horizontally (think: the diagram in the game Hangman). For that, you’ll still need a 3D printer.
“It’s possible to make the interactivity touchable and real on both ends and so we’re definitely exploring going in that direction,” says Leithinger “We’re constantly getting emails from people telling us how the interface can be used to help blind people communicate better or for musicians, stuff even we’ve never thought about.”
August 1, 2013
A few weeks ago, officials of a Chinese company, the Broad Group, posed, shovels in hand, and tossed dirt for the camera. Standard stuff—except this had the potential to be very special dirt because one day it could be beneath the tallest building on the planet.
The plan is to build, pretty much in the middle of a big open field, an implausibly statuesque vertical city that would be home for as many as 30,000 people. It would climb more than 200 stories or just above 2,700 feet high. That would make it almost twice as tall as the Empire State Building and about 33 feet higher than the world’s reigning skyscraper, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai. The Burj Kahlifa took five years to build; the Broad Group claims that, because it will use modular construction, its building, dubbed Sky City, will be ready next spring.
A few days after the photo opp, several newspapers in China reported that the project wasn’t moving forward after all. The Broad Group apparently hadn’t obtained all the necessary permits. A spokesperson for the company says nothing in the its plans has changed, although he did not say when real ground would actually be broken.
But even if Sky City never comes to be, another absurdly tall tower will take its place in pushing the limit of how high people can live in the sky. The world’s cities are in the midst of a skyscraper boom, and not with just tall buildings, but with ones officially designated as “supertall.” Nearly 600 buildings of at least 200 meters—or about 60 stories high—are either under construction or in the planning stages. That would almost double the number that height within the next 10 years. Now only three skyscrapers are above 500 meters, or more than 1,600 feet. By 2020, there are expected to be 20 more.
Up, up and away
So why now?
Some of this obviously has to do with making a statement, particularly with countries wanting to transform their images into one that’s more modern, diverse and economically glamorous. Some is driven by ego, pure and simple—the chairman of the Broad Group, Zhang Yue, for instance, has become almost a messianic figure among his 4,000 employees, who all wear matching outfits, along with name tags bearing motivational slogans, such as “Innovate Life Now” or “Perfect Oneself.”
But there are other reasons that have more to do with demographic trends and technological innovation. Here are just a few of them:
- And one day we’ll all just get stuck in elevator traffic: Already more than half the people on Earth live in urban areas; by 2050, seven out of 10 will. Growing upward is seen as a wiser, more sustainable option than sprawling outward. The truth is that seeing skyscrapers as office buildings has become so 20th century; now they’re designed as places for people to live, and do just about everything else. If and when Sky City is built, it will have, in addition to apartments for tens of thousands of people, multiple shopping malls, schools, restaurants, swimming pools, tennis and basketball courts and movie theaters, not to mention its own hotel, hospital and giant vertical garden. Since residential and retail spaces require narrower floor plates than offices, mixed-use buildings can go higher with the same amount of material. And skyscrapers with a lot of tenant options are a lot easier to fill. In 2000, only five of the 20 tallest buildings in the world were mixed-use; by 2020, only five won’t be.
- So long to basic cable: Believe it or not, one of the key factors limiting how high buildings can go is the weight of steel elevator cables. If they stretch much beyond 1,600 feet, they’re at risk of snapping under their own weight. But a Finnish company has developed a cable it calls UltraRope, which is made of carbon fiber and weighs almost half as much. UltraRope, say engineers, will make a 300-story building possible.
- Like Legos, only bigger: The Broad Group made a big splash in late 2011 when it erected a 30-story building in 15 days. That’s right, two weeks. It was able to do this only because each floor was pre-fabricated in a factory, then connected on-site. While it may be hard for most of us to imagine pre-fab skyscrapers, people in the high-rise business don’t think that’s far-fetched at all. Some even envision tall buildings of the future being built in a factory, then fitted together by an army of robots. Clearly, the modular approach is catching on. More than 60 percent of the $4.9 billion Atlantic Yard project in Brooklyn will be constructed off-site, including a 32-story building. And if Sky City does move forward, it would mean that the tallest building in the world would be modular. That’s how the company can plausibly talk about Sky City being finished by next spring. Speed is one big advantage. Cost is another. The Broad Group says Sky City should cost roughly $850 million to build. The Burj Khalifa in Dubai cost $1.5 billion.
- Now those are bad vibes: Even 3-D printers have played a role in accelerating the skyward building boom. Engineers can now print multiple 3-D models of a building, then test each one in a wind tunnel. The models are covered with sensors that take pressure readings that are fed into a computer simulation that reveals a building’s vulnerable spots. The engineers can even re-create the building’s future surroundings—hills, highways, other buildings—to see what kind of wind patterns they may create. What they want to avoid is a phenomenon called vortex shedding, where even a moderate wind flowing around a structure can cause it to sway and actually vibrate—not the effect you’re looking for 150 stories up. To counter it, architects create rounded edges or notches and cut-ins at the building’s corner. A great example is the design of the 116-story Imperial Tower which will dominate Mumbai’s skyline. The building is skinny and rounded, but to keep it from oscillating, its facade is broken up with random cut-outs—balconies in some places, gardens in others. The point, say the architects, is to “confuse the wind.”
Video bonus: Watch a 30-story building go up in 15 days. Yes, that’s enough to make a video go viral.
Video bonus bonus: And here’s one that’s really old school—construction workers perched on high steel as they finish up the Empire State Building in 1930. Nothing personal, but they were crazy.
More from Smithsonian.com
July 26, 2012
Over the next few days you’re going to see a lot of the London Eye, the giant slow-spinning Ferris wheel along the Thames River, particularly since during the Olympics it will be portrayed as a massive mood ring, changing color every night to reflect what people have been tweeting about the Games. If tweeters are feeling good about what’s going on, it will glow yellow. If not, it will turn morosely purple.
What you’re less likely to see is the vertical garden covering the corner of the Athenaeum Hotel in Mayfair or the one at the Edgeware Road Underground station or the one climbing 14 stories up the side of an apartment building on Digby Road in Central London.
Which is a shame, because while none of these walls are able to change color to reflect the whims of Twitter Nation, they are choice examples of one of the more pleasing architectural innovations trending in cities around the world.
But they’re much more than urban eye candy. Last week a study published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology concluded that green walls planted strategically could help cut pollution in cities by as much as 30 percent, almost 10 times more than previously thought.
The key, say the researchers, is that green walls can filter out pollution not just at street level, as trees can, but much higher up in urban canyons. Their computer models suggested that grasses, ivy and flowers attached to the sides of walls and buildings could be even more effective at cleaning the air than plants in parks or on rooftops.
Some have taken to calling this “vegitecture.” Not so easy on the ears, but the point is to give props to vegetation as a valuable component of architecture. It’s how the firm Capella Garcia Arquitectura describes the vertical garden it built to cover an unsightly wall on a Barcelona apartment building last year. Using steel scaffolding erected next to building, they essentially created a stack of huge planters layered more than 60 feet high. And, thanks to an interior staircase hidden by the plants, a person can enter this hanging garden from the inside and take a break from the city’s whirl on one of the wooden benches.
But for all the talk of urban canyons, you don’t see many vertical gardens on the sides of skyscrapers. Most are still about style more than function, such as the verdant coating around the windows of the Musee du Quai Branly in Paris, or the wild, multi-layered facade of the CaixaForum Museum in Madrid. Both are the creations of Patrick Blanc, a botanist turned landscape architect whose hair matches his walls and who designed the system of metal frame, PVC pipe and nonbiodegradeable felt that makes it possible for plants to take root on vertical surfaces without the need for soil.
Architects in Mexico City, working for a non-profit called VERDMX, have taken a slightly different approach. They’ve erected three towering “eco-structures,” shaped like upside down L’s and U’s and ringed with vegetation. The hope is that they will help clear Mexico City’s notoriously nasty air. But pollution dies hard. Exhaust from cars on nearby streets already is causing some withering on the vines.
Here are more recent examples of cities going natural:
- Yes, we have new bananas: What do you mean, you can’t grow bananas in Paris? Sure, you can’t now, but SOA, a French architectural firm, wants to make it so. They just unveiled plans to build a vertical banana plantation inside an old building on a busy Paris street. The place would be gutted and turned into an urban greenhouse, with trees, under artificial lights, growing inside. There will be a research lab, a restaurant and the obligatory gift shop, but mainly it will be banana trees. And all will be visible from the street through a clear glass wall.
- Trees and supertrees: Probably the most spectacular urban homage to nature is Singapore’s Gardens by the Bay, which opened last month. It has two lakes, two glass conservatories, many gardens and 700,000 plants. But the real showstoppers are the 18 steel supertrees, some more than 150 feet tall. Each is a vertical garden, its “trunk” wrapped in ferns and tropical climbing plants. Many are also solar towers, with photovoltaic cells on their canopies creating the energy that lights them up at night.
- Down on the farm in Motor City: Detroit and Michigan State University announced an agreement last month to develop a major urban agriculture research program that likely would include converting abandoned buildings into multi-tiered farms.
- Waste not, want not: A former pork processing plant in Chicago is being transformed into a combination urban farm, fish hatchery and brewery. Called The Plant, it’s set up so the waste from one part of the operation serves as raw material for another, making it a net-zero energy system.
- Start spreadin’ the moos: Who’d have thunk it? New York has become a leader in the burgeoning world of rooftop farming. And it’s no longer just little community gardens up there. Now two for-profit companies are in the mix, Gotham Greens, which started a farm on a Brooklyn rooftop last year and has three more in the works, and Brooklyn Grange, which has been farming a one-acre roof in Queens and now is also growing squash, tomatoes and scallions atop the Brooklyn Navy Yard.
Video bonus: See where it all started in this BBC piece on Patrick Blanc, the green-haired Frenchman who turned vertical gardening into urban architecture.
More from Smithsonian.com
March 29, 2012
In his new book, “Rethinking a Lot: The Design and Culture of Parking,” MIT professor Eran Ben-Joseph asks a simple question: “Have you seen a great parking lot lately?” which is kind of like asking if you’ve enjoyed a plate of runny eggs lately.
Not that parking lots have ever been a testament to innovative thinking. I mean, we’re talking about paving over dirt. This has never been a big brain-drainer.
But Ben-Joseph says it’s time to give these big, drab open spaces their moment to shine, beyond their oil spots glistening in the sun–particularly now the the world’s population is pouring into cities. And his vision is not just about making better use of all the dead space. It’s also about minimizing their impact on the urban and suburban neighborhoods around them. Parking lots are notorious heat islands that toast whatever surrounds them. And they gunk up runoff water from heavy rains with oil, anti-freeze and other nasty stuff.
By Ben-Joseph’s estimate, in fact, all of the parking lots in the U.S., if connected, would be able to cover Puerto Rico. That’s a whole lotta lot. As he pointed out in a piece that ran in the New York Times earlier this week, “In some cities, like Orlando and Los Angeles, parking lots are estimated to cover at least one-third of the land area, making them one of the most salient landscape features of the built world.”
So what does Ben-Joseph have in mind? He’s a big fan of the solar canopies popping up in parking lots around the planet. They provide both shade and solar energy, in some cases to charge electric vehicles. He also thinks it only makes sense to use more porous asphalt that would reduce flooding and polluted run-off. And he believes that parking lots should become a much bigger part of our social lives, not just for farmer’s markets, but also for movie nights and programs like the “Shakespeare in the Parking Lot” festival that happens every summer in Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
As for aesthetics, well, Ben-Joseph seems enchanted by the lot outside the Fiat Lingotto factory in Turin, Italy, a design about which he waxes almost rhapsodically. He describes “rows of trees in a dense grid, creating an open, level space under a soft canopy of foliage that welcomes pedestrians as naturally as it does cars.”
It would somehow seem wrong to fight over a space while under a soft canopy of foliage.
The magic of garage weddings
But what about the parking lot’s bulky, boxy cousin, the garage? Clearly, it’s done its part to ugly up the landscape. Ben-Joseph doesn’t go there, but some cities have started to, particularly Miami Beach, where parking garages have become architectural showpieces. Seriously.
It started in the ’90s with the unveiling of a five-story garage built atop a block of historic buildings on Collins Avenue. Its official name is Ballet Valet, but most locals know it as the “Chia pet” garage because that’s what it looks like, with its exterior walls seeming to sprout plants–in three different shades of green, no less–hiding the concrete bunker within.
That was only the beginning. Last year celeb architect Frank Gehry unveiled the New World Center concert hall, adorned with a parking garage covered in steel mesh and lit by a dazzling display of programmable, multi-colored LED lights. But wait, there’s more. A seven-story garage designed by the Swiss firm Herzog & de Meuron, is so sleek and stylish that weddings and bar mitzvahs are held on its top floor.
And construction will begin this year on a structure that looks more suited for space pods than anything on wheels. The brainchild of London architect Zaha Hadid, it’s the anti-box, a swirl of mismatched, looping ramps with nary a right angle in sight.
I’d hate to get lost in there. Then again, maybe not.
It’s an asphalt jungle out there
Here’s more innovative thinking about city living:
- Feel the surge: Qualcomm, the wireless tech giant recently announced that it will run a trial in London later this year of a technology that will allow electric vehicles to be charged wirelessly through a transmitter pad embedded in a parking lot.
- Towers of power: A team of MIT researchers have developed 3-D solar towers that can produce significantly more power than conventional solar panels. The towers could be installed in parking lots to charge electric cars.
- Time is on your side: A new gadget called EasyPark is an in-your-vehicle parking meter that allows you to pay only for the time you’re actually parked.
- I’ve grown accustomed to your space: A mobile app called iSpotSwap lets you know when a parking space you want becomes available.
Video bonus: If there’s such a thing as an anti-parking lot anthem, Joni Mitchell sang it more than 40 years ago.