Projects | Thumbles

Robotic user interface platform

Projects | Thumbles

Robotic user interface platform

Thumbles are small robots that drive around on a tabletop surface under computer control to create a new type of interface.

Users interact by grasping and moving the Thumbles around, and the computer can respond by moving them as well.

Thumbles combine the versatility of a graphical user interface with the tactile advantages of interacting with physical objects. The robots rearrange themselves on the table based on what the user wants to do. For example, the Thumbles can represent characters in a video game, or molecules in a chemistry simulation.

Beyond gaming and data visualization, applications include video editing, command and control and logistics. There are a great deal of real-world problems that computers are not good at solving alone and people likewise have trouble solving, but people and computers working together using the right tools can solve very well. We believe that Thumbles are particularly well suited for these problems, particularly when teams of people must work together to develop a solution.

From a hardware perspective, one interesting detail about Thumbles is their use of omniwheels. Their drive system allows them to move equally easily in any direction without first having to turn. This agility enables applications where the user and the computer are both moving Thumbles at the same time.


Thumbles is based on earlier work done by James Patten in the Tangible Media Group at the MIT Media Lab. PICO, the first iteration of this concept, is a tabletop interaction surface that can track and move small objects on top of it.

Pico on Sensetable platform

It has been used for complex spatial layout problems such as cellular telephone tower layout. The interface provides ample opportunities for improvisation by allowing the user to employ a rich variety of everyday physical objects as interface elements. Portions of electronics design by Jason Alonso. PICO runs on an experimental version of the Sensetable platform.