Electronic devices that can change their physical shape depending on the needs of the user might sound far-fetched. But recent research advances on several fronts have brought such shape-shifting hardware closer to reality.
Case in point: Intel's Dynamic Physical Rendering project. "The approach we're pursuing is one where a shape-shifting material would be made of many small parts, where each part has the ability to move relative to its neighbors, to compute, and likely to communicate with its neighbors as well," explains principal investigator Jason Campbell. "By rearranging these parts, one changes the overall shape of the ensemble." Campbell is a research scientist at Intel Research Pittsburgh, an interdisciplinary laboratory housed at Carnegie Mellon University's Collaborative Innovation Center.
Intel is not yet working on any products based on these exotic materials. Its goal, Campbell says, is to advance the basic science of shape shifting and enable the next wave of user interfaces for computing. Within the next three to five years, he says, "we hope to build and experiment with laboratory quantities of millimeter-scale parts with some level of programmability and the ability to move around within the next three to five years."
Intel is developing a system based on small tubes that can move themselves around electrostatically under the control of an on-board machine. Each tube in 1 mm in diameter and 10 mm long. The tubes "are a stepping-stone on the way to our eventual goal of building spheres that can roll across each others' surfaces," Campbell says. "The basis for the shape shifting approaches we are studying," he adds, "is the ability to rearrange the many, many parts making up a shape, whether those parts are tubes or spheres or even some other form like a cube. In the case of tubes, the shape-shifting is between many 2D shapes, since the tubes will all roll in the same plane. In the case of spheres, the shape shifting would be 3D."
Campbell envisions this technology making it possible for a computing device to adapt its user interface to best suit the task it is performing at any given time. "For instance, if I want to browse the Web on my [mobile Internet device], I might want a larger screen and smaller keyboard," he says. "Or if I'm going to play a game, I may want a joystick for a flight simulator or a handle for a simulated tennis racket."
A shape-shifting device might grow or shrink or even sprout a whole new functional structure, such as a keyboard, Campbell says. "In doing so, it would necessarily still be made of the same number of parts, so to get bigger it would also become hollower. Correspondingly, a shape could get smaller by making itself less hollow and packing the parts closer together."
Another potential benefit of this technology is the possibility of interacting with a "live" version of a product being designed — for instance, a car. The user might begin designing in a conventional CAD environment, Campbell says, and then click an on-screen button to instruct the shape-shifting material to produce a 3D model of the design. The engineer could then refine the design by sculpting the physical model manually — with changes being fed back into the CAD file.
Campbell says that such a capability would go beyond what is possible today with so-called rapid prototyping, or 3D printing, systems that fabricate objects from CAD files. The shape-shifting objects, he says, would be reusable and interactive, as well as quicker to produce. "Rather than waiting hours for a 3D model to print, [shape-shifting] materials might be able to form a desired shape within seconds." And rather than producing a static object as a 3D printer does, shape-shifting materials could be interactive. They might be sculpted with hands or tools, and could transmit data to a computer.
Other research organizations are working on similar projects involving modular robotics. For example, at the University of Southern Denmark, scientists have developed a robot called Odin.
"Instead of having modules wander around on each other like in a self-reconfigurable robot, this robot [can] change shape through deformation of individual modules," says Kasper Støy, associate professor of computer systems engineering. "Shape-change through deformation has the advantage that the connection between modules can be permanent and therefore significantly simpler than the ones used in conventional self-reconfigurable robots."
Such reconfigurable robots are a focus of work at the University of Pennsylvania's General Robotics, Automation, Sensing and Perception (GRASP) lab, says Mark Yim, Gabel Family associate professor of mechanical engineering. Recently, Yim says, GRASP researchers "embedded cameras into their modular system so groups of modules locate and assemble with other modules." Modules "can reassemble themselves to form arbitrary shapes. For example, if it started out as a snake and fell out of a tree, when it put itself back together it might choose to assemble itself into the shape of a monkey instead."
Yim says another, multi-university project called Programmable Matter involves hundreds of small-scale smart modules that can form arbitrary shapes. He likens the goal here to creating "the ultimate Swiss army knife. Instead of five distinct tools — screwdriver, knife, scissors — this thing could be 1,000 tools, any shape you want, up to the resolution of the modules." Systems like these can adapt not only their shape but their function as well, Yim says. "For example, a material could be hard like a desk for writing on, then soft as pillow if you need to lie on it," he says.
Yim points to other fantastic possibilities. He describes a search-and-rescue machine as the "classic reconfiguring robot." This robot, he says, might be a "biped that can run up to a rubble pile, reconfigure into a snake to explore void spaces." And then, if the slithering system finds a victim, it could "change shape again into a shelter around the person to protect him from further harm."
Such changes would certainly be a welcome development in the shape of things to come.
Bob Violino is a writer based in Massapequa Park, NY, who covers business and technology.