Shapeshifting Robotic “Fabric”

C|Net writer Michael Kanellos must be thinking the same thing I am while reporting on a material (of sorts) comprised of millions of tiny robots that act in unison to create 3D shapes… among other things. From the article, “Attack of the killer prototype robots” (Link):

Apply the right voltage and software program and the flat piece of fabric turns into a three-dimensional model of a car. Change those parameters and it transforms into a cube.

“Rather than look at a 3D model on a CAD (computer aided design) program, a physical model would be manifested on your desk,” said Babu Pillai, who, along with Jason Campbell, is heading up the project. “The material would change shape under software control.”

The trick is that the fabric would not be a continuous piece of material. Instead, it would be composed of millions of independent silicon spheres covered in electronic actuators–half-capacitors or electromagnets. By applying charges to different actuators, different points on the sphere would be repelled or attracted to similar points on other spheres. The coordinated movement of the spheres would then cause the fabric to assume a shape.

Interestingly, the most difficult part appears to be coordinating the little buggers. But with advances in autonomous, cooperative systems (just like the MIT robots I mentioned earlier – reLink), I suspect the anticipated five-year timeline for completion will be met.

Anyone remember my comparing some polybots to a scene from the movie “Prince of Darkness” (reLink)? Tell me this doesn’t sound just like that. Or maybe this is more like that black oily gunk that killed off Denise Crosby’s character in ST-TNG; just googled that and the episode is called “Skin of Evil“. Crappy episode, but ’nuff said.