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Morphing programmable matter gadgets could soon be a reality

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Morphing programmable matter gadgets could soon be a reality Empty Morphing programmable matter gadgets could soon be a reality

Post  RemOrb Thu Dec 25, 2008 1:20 am

IMAGINE a bracelet or a watch that morphs into something else when you take it off. Perhaps it becomes a phone, or perhaps a small computer screen and keyboard.

Researchers are just a few years away from bringing to life revolutionary morphing devices known as programmable matter which can change size, shape and function.

Programmable matter, or "claytronics", involves creating devices made of millions of microscopic robots that are to 3D objects what pixels are to a screen.

These devices sound like pure science fiction, but they might be closer than anyone would have dreamed. And that includes Jason Campbell, one of the key members of the research team developing the technology at the Intel Research Centre.

"It’s a really challenging research vision, but we are making steady progress and we’re now more convinced that we are actually going to do it," says Mr Campbell.

"My estimates of how long it is going to take have gone from 50 years down to just a couple more years. That has changed over the four years I’ve been working on the project."

Size matters

The research centres on robotic building blocks, called "catoms" (short for claytronic atoms).

The aim is to make spherical catoms about 100 microns, or one-tenth of a millimetre, in diameter. In that tiny space, based on current computing technology, there is still a lot of room to include a computing device.

"This is acres of space for nanoelectronic circuits," said Justin Rattner, Intel's chief technology officer.

This means not only room for a computing brain, but also data-storage capacity and an array of electrostatic sensors that can interact with neighbouring catoms.

"It may even use photovoltaics (a solar technology) as a power source and include the ability to generate light," Mr Rattner said.

"You could have a cup full of it, or a tray, and it can be programmed to take on any arbitrary shape. If this isn’t fantastic I don’t know what is!"

Building blocks

While there is a great deal of excitement around the concept, the proof is in the pudding – so how close have they come to creating actual programmable matter?

"We are aiming for spheres eventually, but to make our task easier to start with we took a cross section of a sphere, so we have cylinders," Mr Campbell said.

"This is really a 2D approach right now," he said.

"We are trying to build a tube that will carry a control circuitry that allows it to move itself around. These tubes right now are about 1mm diameter and about 10mm long. So already we are getting quite small."

But anyone wanting to rush out and buy a catom take note – as with any advanced technology, the first applications are unlikely to appear on the consumer scene.

"In the near term, high value applications might include 3D visualisation in things like medicine, from fundamentally 3D data sources like eye scanners, CT scanners, ultrasound," Mr Campbell said.

"This would allow practitioners to really examine it, touch it and make a better prognosis for a surgery they are about to do. It would no longer be about looking at slices of that data, but actually seeing in 3D and change in scale."

Perhaps before the year 2020, programmable matter will be ready to deliver that bracelet-phone-computer device they dreamed up at the start.

For some people, that may be just a few mobile phone upgrades away. Dick Tracy, eat your heart out.


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Registration date : 2008-12-22

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