During a 2010 interview with Big Think, theoretical physicist Dr. Michio Kaku suggested that we take shape-shifting technology very seriously. Dr. Kaku said: “Science is already making huge advances in the so-called programmable matter.” He believes, in the future we would build entire cities instantaneously, “If I have a clump of clay made of thousands of millions of little dots, I push a button then the charges rearrange themselves to form a statue, a car, or whatever you want.”
Today, the programmable matter has become a part of a thriving research field called Self-Reconfiguring Modular Robotics, where researchers are developing a universal machine. With more advances in SRMR, we could create any structure at any time and constantly reconfigure as per our needs. So, that day isn’t far when we push a button and the clay transforms into a house or an entire city.
In his TEDxCERN talk, interaction designer Sean Follmer demonstrated the incredible shape-shifting technology, a part of the inFORM project by the Tangible Media Group inside the MIT Media Lab. The display takes digital information and turns it into three-dimensional forms. It allows you to shake someone’s hand physically across a digital landscape through the use of a set of lifting shape panels that pick up hand movement via a camera.
The technology uses kinetic blocks that build, dismantle, and reassemble objects. These blocks are made of up to 900 computer-controlled plastic pins that respond to pre-programmed and real-time inputs. These pins have a single degree of motion, i.e. vertical, which confines the difficulty of how a block can be controlled. The pins are able to execute all kinds of movements, en masse.
At the Lexus Design Amazing Exhibition, TMG unveiled the latest rendition of the project ‘Transform,’ in which they used the same technology to create shape-shifting furniture that used 1,000 plastic pins responsive to hand gestures and simulated waves, sand, as well as abstract creatures.
Similar to Follmer’s project, a group of researchers at the University of Michigan are developing shape-shifting machines with an elastic design. Some of their work include: FlexSys, a one-piece polymer iris that can alter its geometry by 100 percent. A FlexSys morphing wing flaps that can boost fuel economy by 12 percent and also reduce landing noise. A flexible motion amplifier that can augment by 10 times the two-micron output of the linear electrostatic motor.
The team led by engineering professor Sridhar Kota is studying the muscle tissues and internal organs of animals with no skeletons and have identified critical components known as elastofluids that will one day make it possible to create soft robots.
By merging these two technologies, we could one day create a universal computer that is embedded into everyday materials to create polymorphic objects, for example, interactive furniture. Nearly everything around us will be reactive as we begin to see the implementation of shape-shifting technology in materials and fabrics. The most popular uses will be gaming and porn, of course.