ANOMALIE digital_arts nr. 3, INTERFACES (2003)

Fabio Gramazio, Matthias Kohler

mTable is a case study of the mShape project, which connects flexible manufacturing of products, based on computer numerical controlled (CNC) machines, to parametric design on portable devices. The mTable interface enables holders of a mobile phone to design a table by interacting with simple actions such as applying pressure on a surface as well as choosing dimensions, materials and colors. Through the automatic conversion of this reduced set of parameters into three-dimensional data and transmission to the CNC production, a custom designed mTable is directly manufactured.

From mobile communication to physical matter

In 2000 we expanded our architectural research into the realm of mobile communication. Our first projects focused on the impact of wireless technologies, in particular of mobile phones, on urban spaces and people's social behaviors. With the location-based communication engine Offsite, implemented for the Migros museum for contemporary art in Zürich, we focused on digitally defined locations allowing people to be present at a place both physically and virtually at the same time. Our motivation for Offsite was that in todays network society, physical location is not obsolete at all. In contrary, since mobile devices will become aware of their position through the global positioning system (GPS), the notion of place as an essential category for social interaction, remote controlling, information filtering and surveillance will become even more critical.
In parallel we started linking mobile phones to other digital environments like the internet and even television. Instead of venturing deeper into communication, the idea of connecting mobile phones to the most physical realm - the material object itself - emerged. To approach this idea we draw upon our in depth explorations of computer controlled manufacturing methods in our architectural praxis, the most extensive project being a 1000qm milled pattern in the sWish* exhibition pavilion in 2001 at the Swiss national exhibition Expo.02.

Into a flexible world

The current generation of portable devices praises features such as being always online, large color screens, and most important programmable operating systems. These features will soon turn the vast number of mobile phones dedicated to voice or short message communication into a huge network of tiny general purpose computers. This fact allows us to engage in projects that involve rather complex computation, while still profiting from the ubiquitous qualities of a mobile phone as a private, personal, always at hand companion.
In 2002, we implemented an interface for designing a custom table on a Nokia mobile phone. The mTable interface enables the user to manipulate the shape of the bottom surface of a table through positioning of up to seven pressure points. The touch and feel of the interface and the design process is between that of a strategy game and a tamagotchi. The rules of the game are an integral part of the design and serve as a framework for the users to develop their individual creative strategies, thus becoming co-designers of their table. The raw resolution of the display together with the limited functionality of the interface allows the users to concentrate on essential design choices without being inhibited by the high complexity and degree of freedom that ordinary computer aided design tools offer. The design is intuitively modified several times depending on the mood, entourage and insights. A small three-dimensional viewer, the Turntable, helps users to step back from and reflect their own design. The design process is open and can even be shared with friends simply by handing over the phone and discussing the visuals. Through this interplay of individual and common choices, the user can identify with the table before having seen the actual object. At every moment, the users know that their design can become physical whenever they choose. The close relationship between the users and their mobile phones - the first and only technologic accessory after the watch that could be regarded as a permanent body extension - opens up completely new ways of understanding and implementing complex interactions between the consumer and the surrounding physical built environment. In this way, the mTable interface allows for flexible manufacturing of maximal consumer influenced goods through minimal parametric design.


If read in an evolutionary context, the mTable interface is a mere logical consequence in the development of tools, which humans create to extend their influence on the environment. mTable empowers the user to shape physical matter in a remote and asynchronous manner. As a simple tool it conveys to its users skills in design and craftsmanship. At the same time mTable illustrates the possibilities of co-authored design through the linkage of formerly separated computer driven technologies. mTable reflects the upcoming revolution that will bring up networks linking people, machines and objects together in several mutual dependencies. Although this is not a commercial project, it allows a community of interested people to design, produce and buy a personalized table at a price comparable to the cost of a conventionally mass produced design table. Moreover, mTable is a case study producing empirical knowledge that can be applied to more complex interactions with parametric designs at different scales: mWalls, mHouses, mGardens, mCities and mLandscapes.

The individual designs submitted as well as further information on the production of mTables can be found at


The mShape project was developed by GJK [Team: Fabio Gramazio, Matthias Kohler, Beat Ferrario, Patrick Sibenaler] between February and October 2002 in collaboration with Viola Zimmermann (Graphics), Thomas Killer (Communication), Roman Keller (Photography), Möbelwerkstatt Hotz (Carpentry), CNC Dynamix (Milling), AGF (Coating), SwissHolz (Wood).

The sWISH* pavillon for the Swiss National Exhibition Expo.02 was conceived and realized by GJK [Team: Fabio Gramazio, Matthias Kohler, Rasmus Joergensen, Beat Ferrario, Odilo Schoch] for IBM (Switzerland) and Swiss Re between October 2000 and Mai 2002.

The Offsite environment was conceived by GJK [Team: Fabio Gramazio, Matthias Kohler, Rasmus Joergensen] and Anna Klingmann for the Lonelyness in the city installation of Alicia Framis at the Migros Museum of Contemporary Art in August 2000 in collaboration with Mike Kenny (Coding), Markus Schietsch + Andreas Zeischegg (Graphics), Odilo Schoch, Anne Voneche, Charlotte von Moos