Tangible Media Group

Shape-shifting is one step closer to becoming reality. Imagine a future where things like your car or smartphone or even your living room, are morphable to its specific use. The latest advancements in this field are beginning to paint a clearer picture of how this technology will change the way we interact with just about everything.

Last year, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Tangible Media Group introduced inFORM, a project they described as a “Dynamic Shape Display that can render 3D content physically”. It allowed 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.

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Coined “programmable matter” in 1991 by Tommasso Toffoli and Norman Margolus, the concept elaborates on placing computer chips into a material. These chips, smaller than a pin, would then allow the material to be controlled using a central computer. Scientist Michio Kaku describes it as "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, whatever you want."

Just last month they unveiled the latest iteration of the project—named “Transform”—at the Lexus Design Amazing Exhibition, in which they rehashed the same technology to create a piece of furniture that used 1,000 pins responsive to gestures and simulated waves,sand, and abstract creatures.

Sean Follmer, one of the creators of inFORM and Transform told Fast Company that he was hoping it was no coincidence that they showcased this technology at a Lexus convention. "Imagine a car with a shapeshifting dashboard!"

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Another group of researchers at the University of Michigan under the leadership of engineering professor Sridhar Kota are spearheading the shapeshifting movement by focusing on elastic design. Conceived by studying the muscle tissues and internal organs of animals with no skeletons—think octopodes and snakes— they have identified critical components, known as elastofluids, that will one day make it possible for them to create “soft robots”.

What this means is by marrying two of these emerging technologies, you can catch a glimpse of what this will look like in the future. A reality where computers are embedded into everyday materials to create polymorphic objects that function similar to muscle tissues. As the concept that a computer is supposed to only fit on a smartphone or laptop dissolves and we start seeing its implementation in materials and fabrics, nearly everything around you will be reactive.

Just think: chairs will react to the way you want to sit, smartphones will expand to provide a more immersive screen size, cars will be off-road ready at a press of a button, and a home can be reassembled to accommodate the changing seasons.

Julian Reyes is a VR Producer for Fusion.