Intelligent Materials: Designing Material Behavior


Bits and Atoms

Will bits eventually control atoms? It is certainly tempting to think so — digital tools mediate ever-increasing parts of our physical environment. Walk down any urban street these days and you will see droves of people glued to their devices — checking their messages, posting photos, even turning their heat down at home, all digitally — while being completely oblivious to the world of atoms around them. And, this is only the beginning. Sure, the physical design of our gadgets might earn our admiration and devotion, but isn’t it what happens on the screen that really commands our attention? Just as the iPhone represents iconic industrial design now, it could just as easily be remembered one day as a milestone in the inevitable shift to bits from atoms. After all, who needs a wallet, a clock, a map or even a flashlight when “there’s an app for that”?

Science fiction films such as Minority Report present future visions of digital experiences integrated into our lives to such an extent that the physical object disappears altogether — from hardware-free interfaces that we control by waving our hands through the air to Google Glass. Pervasive computing of this kind will certainly continue to expand into all of the activities around us in the home, at the office and in the public domain. But what would happen if digital technology were to reenter the physical world at the most basic material level? What if changing the wallpaper on the walls of your home were just as easy as changing the wallpaper on your computer desktop? Could the materials of products and environments themselves actually “behave” more like the dynamic screens with which we interact? At some point in the not-so-distant future, the answer will be yes. Converging knowledge at the intersection of biology, additive manufacturing, and computing are driving new research frontiers such as adaptive materials and programmable matter that might bring about this future. For the purpose of this chapter, we will call these new fields Intelligent Materials — when combined, the outcome of these emerging research areas will have a huge impact on physical design.

In traditional physical design disciplines such as architecture and industrial design, understanding materials has always been an important foundation in learning the craft. Materials have unique properties that are employed to construct buildings or mass- manufacture the products we have traditionally relied on in our daily lives. Stone, wood, metals, plastics, and composites are harvested, quarried, forged, and synthesized in a chemical facility, or a combination thereof. When delivered, physical designers will then shape, mill, mold, and manipulate these materials into an assembly of other parts to create a finished product. Materials are selected for their inherent properties whether those properties are appearance, strength, elasticity, translucency, or any other combination of desired qualities that are suitable for the intended use case of a designed object. Materials frequently perform a specialized function by means of their chemical properties but often with an undesirable trade-off of toxicity or recyclability. The resounding pattern here is that materials are basically static and designers have to accept their properties and limitations and compromise accordingly.

In coming decades, we will see a fundamental evolution in the meaning of the word material. Materials will be able to be optimized to a particular purpose by fine-tuning the microscopic physical surface structure rather than by altering their chemistry. More to the point, we will also see the introduction of more materials that can change on demand through devices or computer control to fit our needs. Just as screen technologies such as LCD and E-Ink can change quickly to display moving images, physical material properties like color, translucency, the ability to repel or attract water, and even the ability to change shape will be controllable by the user, mediated by embedded sensors and computers. These new advances are beginning to be brought about by accomplishments in the sciences and engineering that would not be possible without their deep interdisciplinary collaboration. The outcome of this work will have considerable implications on what the world looks like in the coming decades. At that time, physical designers will have a greater ability to design the materials themselves, not just the physical artifacts that the materials are used to make.

We will also see fields of design continue to evolve beyond their traditional silos. Just as physical designers have crossed the boundary into digital experiences from atoms to bits to create broader, richer user experiences (UX), digital and interaction designers will similarly be able to design the UX of changeable physical materials and products. Bits will control atoms.

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