Imagine if you could bend your phone and turn it into a watch. Or if your desk could morph into a chair. Or if, when using FaceTime or Skype, you could not only see and hear the other person, but also feel him, too.

That's the world envisioned by Sean Follmer, a computer researcher and designer. Follmer and his team at MIT Media Lab created inFORM, a three-dimensional, shape-shifting interface for people to interact with their computers. 

"The computer ... can do a million different things and run a million different applications," Follmer said during a TED Talk about inFORM in October. "However, computers have the same static physical form for all of these different applications--and the same static interface elements as well." 

To solve this perceived problem, Follmer's team constructed a surface that lies flat in front of the user. It displays text, figures, and other information, and the user interacts with it much as he would an iPad. That's where things get funky: As you manipulate the flat surface, hundreds of small pins push upward to different heights. The interface takes on the three-dimensional form of whatever you are looking at, be it a pie chart or an urban landscape--like a high-tech raised-relief map. Follmer points out that architects and urban planners can use the technology to create three-dimensional, tactile views of cityscapes that can be manipulated by touch.  

The interface can be used for person-to-person communication, too. Two people talking via video, with the inFORM surface in front of them, can reach out with their hands and cause the other person's interface to take the shape of their hands and arms.

To make this all happen, inFORM uses a depth-sensing camera that tracks movement and transfers it to a set of 900 "linear actuators." By means of a circuit board, the actuators send the movements to the pins above. 

Follmer's inFORM technology is still crude--the pins are rectangular and clunky, and their large size means they don't get closer than the vague semblance of the objects they're replicating. But it's easy to see where this is going. As the technology is refined, it's conceivable that two people on opposite sides of the world could work on the same physical object as easily as if they were in the same room. 

Using the same technology, the team also created a flat table that can pop up to become a work station--book shelf, monitor stand, pencil holder--when prompted to do so. These shape-shifting objects could be the most innovative application: Follmer's demonstration includes a flat object that can be bend into the shape of a phone or watch, and a soft device that can be squeezed into the desired shape and act as a remote or joystick.

To see inFORM in action, check out Follmer's TED talk below.