Remember pin art? That’s the little box full of pins that you can push something into and the pins take on the shape. You usually use your hand, but any small object works (including, if you are brave enough, your face). [Sean Follmer] (formerly at the MIT Media Lab) developed the reverse of this: a surface made of pins driven by motors. Under computer control, the surface can take on shapes all by itself.
The square pins can be seen in the video below moving and manipulating blocks and using them to build structures out of the blocks. By using the right sequence of pin motions, the blocks can be flipped and even stacked. Magnetic blocks offer even more options.
The developers hope the device will be useful in telepresence and manufacturing applications. Special modules can convert the vertical motion into other types of behavior (like rotation). You can see examples of that near the end of the video.
This looks like it could be fairly simple for hackers to replicate. The ACM paper that announced the work has a lot of detail on the methods used to move and manipulate blocks, but not much detail on the mechanism. But it shouldn’t be too hard to figure out something similar.