Studio Initiated
“Quantum leaps have rarely resulted from studies on users' needsor market research; they have come from the passion and dreams of visionaries...” Hiroshi Ishii, Associate Director of MIT Media Lab

Via tiny robots called Thumbles, we enrich the power of computation with the tangibility of physical interaction.

The result of an internal research project based on earlier work done by James Patten, Ph.D, as part of the Tangible Media Group at the MIT Media Lab, Thumbles create a more intuitive mechanism for interaction that allows for human and computer control at the same time. Each Thumble moves around on a tabletop surface, controlled simultaneously by computer and the human hand, creating a uniquely interactive experience in which the difference between the interface of an object and the object itself becomes indistinguishable.

Application Agnostic
“Touch is the first of the senses to develop in the human infant, and it remains perhaps the most emotionally central throughout our lives.” Maria Konnikova, “The Power of Touch” The New Yorker

Think of Thumbles as a functional handle of digital information that you can grasp, twist or push and pull. Almost infinitely manipulable, Thumbles form an ideal platform for a variety of scenarios involving digital interfaces that benefit from a tactile component. These application-agnostic robots have acted as spaceships in a video game, slidable controls in a sound editing console, and even trackable cars on a map.

Thumblescan rearrange themselves based on how they are being used. They are particularly powerful when used in applications that require complex computations, combining a machine’s number crunching capabilities with the human knack for asking the right questions.

Command & Control

In a command and control application, emergency response dispatchers can dispatch Thumbles, acting as rescue vehicles, by physically moving them to desired locations on the map.

Systems Visualization

In a protein folding simulation, Thumbles act as handles that provide haptic feedback. If a protein is folded incorrectly, the robot will resist movement, alerting the user to the fold’s mathematical implausibility. In essence, they are tactile controls that transform a highly dimensional math problem into a simple mechanical system.

Understanding Big Data

When applied to complex data sets (e.g. clinical drug trials) Thumbles can help users identify patterns and look at data from new perspectives. Users can attach Thumbles to different points in a data set, and use them as physical handles to “twist” the data into different shapes. This allows for a tactile approach to problem solving.

Iterative Prototyping



Version 1

Thumbles debuted with an integrated omni-wheel system, which allowed them to move easily in any direction without needing to turn. This agility enabled applications where the user and the computer were both moving Thumbles at the same time.

Version 2

The second generation of Thumbles introduced capacitive sensing decreased the size and overall volume of each robot. Smaller wheels, together with added enclosures to protect each wheel axis, as well as the introduction of a new IR tracking system, improved the robots’ overall responsiveness. Wireless charging capabilities rounded out the modifications.


More Work