The MIT Media Lab has built a pin-based robotic surface capable of manipulating objects as an approach to "physical telepresence."
The research appears to be a continuation of this project from last year, when MIT's Tangible Media Group used the same pin-based surface to show how someone could manipulate an object remotely. The movements of the remotely-connected individual's hands were mirrored by the pins to roll a ball around the surface.
Now the MIT lab has figured out how to build simple structures using the same robotic "floor." The pins comprising the shape display (the lab's name for its creation) move up and down to variable heights to stack blocks, use them as scaffolding, and then disassemble them. As the video's description explains, "pin-based shape displays not only give physical form to digital information, they have the inherent ability to accurately move and manipulate objects placed on top of them."
The structure can be assembled remotely using another set of blocks, and the shape display floor records and analyzes the arrangement of the remote blocks before recreating them. Using magnetic or kinetic blocks allows for even more complex and stable structures.
Being able to manipulate 3D objects remotely is impressive, and having a physical telepresence will doubtless be useful in long-distance collaborations and presentations, though the potential applications of the projects are not stated. Regardless, it's really cool.