What if you had a material that could form itself into a hammer or a wrench on demand? That's the goal of DARPA's Programmable Matter project, described here by program manager Mitchell Zakin.
The idea is what Zakin calls "infochemistry", building structures out of smart, versatile mesoparticles that can nond themselves together on demand, perehaps using techniques like tribocharging - static cling, in ultrasimple terms - or jamming, the technical term for the process that turns sand and water into concrete.
The result, he says, could be materials that assemble themselves and include different mesoparticles to carry out different functions - sensing and computing.
All manufacturing, says Zakin, could be reduced to producing the mesoparticles and assembling them. The results could include airplane wings that instantly change shape, or apparel that automatically adjusts body temperature.
Or from Carnegie Mellon's Synethtic Reality website:
The goal of the claytronics project is to understand and develop the hardware and software neccesary to create a material which can be programmed to form dynamic three dimensional shapes which can interact in the physical world and visually take on an arbitrary appearance. Claytronics refers to an ensemble of individual components, called catoms—for claytronic atoms—that can move in three dimensions (in relation to other catoms), adhere to other catoms to maintain a 3D shape, and compute state information (with possible assistance from other catoms in the ensemble). Each catom contains a CPU, an energy store, a network device, a video output device, one or more sensors, a means of locomotion, and a mechanism for adhering to other catoms.
The power and flexibility that will arise from being able to "program" the world around us should influence every aspect of the human experience. In our project we focus in on one particular aspect of the human experience, how we communicate and interact with each other. Claytronics is a technology which can serve as the means of implementing a new communication medium, which we call pario. The idea behind pario is to reproduce moving, physical 3D objects. Similar to audio and video, we are neither transporting the original phenomena nor recreating an exact replica: instead, the idea is to create a physical artifact that can do a good enough job of reproducing the shape, appearance, motion, etc., of the original object that our senses will accept it as being close enough.
I wonder how they will power this...and what the power requirements are.