Electronic Skins – Flexible and Amazing

From Nature: Figure 1 | Imperceptible electronic foil. a, Illustration of a thin large-area active-matrix sensor with 12312 tactile pixels. b, Ultrathin plastic electronic foils are extremely lightweight (3 g m22); they float to the ground more slowly than a feather and are therefore virtually unbreakable. Scale bar, 2 cm.c, At only 2mm thickness, our devices are ultraflexible and can be crumpled like a sheet of paper. Scale bar, 1 cm.

From Nature: Figure 1 | Imperceptible electronic foil. a, Illustration of a thin large-area active-matrix sensor with 12312 tactile pixels. b, Ultrathin plastic electronic foils are extremely lightweight (3 g m22); they float to the ground more slowly than a feather and are therefore virtually unbreakable. Scale bar, 2 cm.c, At only 2mm thickness, our devices are ultraflexible and can be crumpled like a sheet of paper. Scale bar, 1 cm. Click above to read the full paper.

Ok, so my mind has just been blown. We all know flexible electronics are on their way. It isn’t all that innovative to imagine, but heck, when you actually see a picture of a super thin conductive surface working, it is pretty amazing.

Lightweight and Indestructible

Nature just posted a huge article on a thin film sensory material with impressive images of it floating to the ground like a feather, or pressed into the roof of a mouth (cast) to take up the exact form and gather information. It is hard not to get excited! The image with the feather is amazing for the concept that future electronics could be extremely tough, not because they are built out of bullet proof material, but because it is so light it will never fall hard enough to break. Now that is some divergent thinking.

Thin Film Electronics 2

From Nature: the image of the ring and sensory output gives everything context. Not sure what the graphs mean, but they look pretty cool.

Smart Surfaces Everywhere

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Shaping with Cells (and more…)

So… I’m obsessed with how “things” will get built, formed, grown in the future. I have written a bunch of posts around issues of recyclability and re-use, and the big differences between nature and human fabrication. Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about scale. The intelligence of a cell, versus the intelligence of a brick. As long as the brick is “dumb” you will never have a “smart” building. My current research has led me to look a lot at ubiquitous sensing, but it doesn’t achieve much if the raw material is unable to respond. So, I began to explore concepts around cellular manufacturing and then BOOM people begun sharing amazing links…

Cells that Fold like Origami

Scientists have grown connective tissue cells at the seam of polymer sheets the size of tiny cells. Those tissue cells react and fold, and the shape of the seams dictate the final form. The movie shows everything from a little sheet folding in half, or a cube, all the way to quite a complex polygon. The one at the end that rolls up into a tube is absolutely gorgeous. As usual the “purpose” of the research is to do with medical technology, saving lives and delivering drugs, which sounds all well and good. I’m imagining the inside of your cell phone configuring itself with the latest software upgrade so that the actual components improve over time…

Materials that Speak to One Another

Psychedelic diagram of how the pulse moves through the gel, changing the form. Click on the image to the source, there are some animations that explain things a little more...

Psychedelic diagram of how the pulse moves through the gel, changing the form. Click on the image to the source, there are some animations that explain things a little more…

I’ll admit I haven’t fully wrapped my mind around this one, and the image above doesn’t help that much. There is a Gel, the Belousov-Zhabotinsky (BZ) Gel, that is able to pulse or oscillate in unison. Researchers have been able to get the pulsing to synchronize so that the material can interact. The goal is that the materials can trigger an action, such as moving closer or further apart from one another. As I understand it, the idea is for self-assembly within the material level. Anna Balazs, the lead researcher, puts it in terms of a construction kit, like lego, that can unsnap or snap itself together given the right triggers. Where the above example is physically triggered, it appears this one is triggered more by chemistry. A change in the chemistry of the material could lead to a change in the physical form. Our “bricks” would need to have integrated delivery of chemistry as information. Now that would be something fun to design…

Shape-memory Hydrogel

As soon as I posted this entry I found another example that needed to be included. So here it is… This is a hydrogel that acts as a liquid, but when it absorbs water it takes on a physical form. Researchers are hoping to use it in drug delivery, or tissue repair, and control its physicality through chemistry. Imagine something flowing through a system and then reacting on site, then shifting into a physical form that delivers a drug, or repairs damage. So far it works like a very loose sponge and filling up with water inside and out gives it the form. Interestingly, they are calling this a “metamaterial” – which is an artificial material with properties that do not appear in nature. Not sure if I fully understand that just yet…

If anyone out there has any other research, or links to research on this topic, please share!


Tom Wiscombe – Integrated Futures of the Built Environment

Above is an excellent lecture, but prepare some pop-corn, it is a long one…

It is incredibly inspiring, and intimidating when you come across someone who is exploring similar train of thought you may have been dabbling in for years. Inspiring as you get validation and stimulation from their work, and intimidating when they are executing it at a quantity and quality of output that is staggering. Tom Wiscombe, who I am embarrassed to have only recently discovered is exactly one of those amazing applied thinkers.

I also need to admit I have not spent nearly enough time processing all of the content, so apologies in advance if the following is a little fragmented – there are a lot of rabbit holes to explore.

Deconstructing the Built Environment

Image source Tom Wiscombe: The Radiant Hydronic House integrates internal thermal flow within the structure.

In class we deconstruct design territories into broad concepts in order to approach them through a variety of lenses.  As discussed previously, we challenge the concept of a wall by questioning it as a membrane or a shell, using language to unlock low-associative thoughts. Tom Wiscombe, it turns out has been doing this to great depth with some excellent insights into deconstructing labels in order to disrupt preconceived concepts. I hope you enjoy the quote below as much as I did when I first read it:

“It’s time to replace outmoded terms like “building services” and “mechanical systems“ once and for all… The notion of the “mechanical” brings us back to the industrial paradigm, rooted in a pre‐networked world. And lighting design has become little more than a fixture‐shopping experience. For now, maybe we can refer to these marginalized techno‐systems in a more refreshing way as airflow, fluid flow, and glow.”

Tom Wiscombe, Extreme Integration, Published in AD: Exuberance (ed. by Marjan Coletti), March, 2010

Airflow, fluid flow and glow, are just the tip of the technological, structural and formal concepts that Tom is extracting in order to functionally integrate technological mash-ups.

Let me share a couple of his projects that give context to what might be sounding a bit abstract right now:

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Future Fabrication

Image sources below: Small - Robobee, Medium - Nike FlyFit, Large - Flight Assembled Architecture

There are three observations I want to share around fabrication technologies that highlight the extraordinarily diverse innovation occurring in the world. At the small scale are robobees, tiny robots that exhibit an extraordinary level of manufacturing detail – the photos are mind blowing when you really wrap your head around the complexity being fabricated at the size of a penny. At medium scale is the Nike FlyFit shoe which has been getting a lot of press, and proves to me that the future of design is fibre. At the large scale, while the quadrocopters may be small, the possibilities are enormous as architects experiment with their own version of rapid fabrication.

Small – Robobees

Image source Pratheev Sreetharan: tiny complex structures fully assembled in their own armature.

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Materials Inspiration Resource

Image from Ingredients No. 5: BREAD (The Bureau of Research Engineering Art & Design) are developing hybrid, variable materials... just a little snippet you'll find in the Ingredients Magazine available on line.

Chris Lefteri has written an excellent array of books for designers around materials. They started off as a series on the latest and greatest technologies in specific materials such as wood, ceramics, glass, etc… Over the last few years he has positioned himself as a unique materials consultant for designers.

Apparently Chris is also very generous as he is constantly releasing free resources through a range of side projects. A favourite of mine, and my students, shout out to Rudy for reminding me about this, is a little web zine called “Ingredients”. It’s a playful magazine with a range of provocative essays, stunning photography and general materials news. Jump to the link available here and click around to download the latest issue, I think there are five in total, and I really encourage diving in and snooping around (you have to “sign up” but I have never been spammed by them, so all should be good).


Self Healing Materials

Sneak peak at images inside excellent paper reviewing self repairing materials. Click on link for a deep dive!

I’ve recently become more obsessed with self healing materials, which I have learned in materials science speak is “autonomous material systems”. I like that fancy title, in one part for it’s scienceness factor, but mostly because it reminds us that materials are complex systems, not a static substance. To get started I’ve included the Wikipedia definition is here (which has an excellent overview of the general research):

Self-healing materials are a class of smart materials that have the structurally incorporated ability to repair damage caused by mechanical usage over time. The inspiration comes from biological systems, which have the ability to heal after being wounded.

Below I’ve collected a variety of case studies and a general overview of some of the principles. If you’re ready to dive into the meat of the science there is a paper available here that really shows off the research.

Autonomous Materials Systems

The best site for an overview of the science as well as mind blowing examples of the materials research  is the Autonomous Materials Systems website from the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (whew that’s a mouthful).

The materials are incredible. Their research presents three main types of self healing materials;

  • Microencapsulated Systems – material containing little capsules filled with a healing agent that bonds when in contact with catalysts also embedded in the material (see diagram below).
  • Microvascular Systems – materials filled with capillaries filled with healing agents
  • Mechanoresponsive Polymers – modifications made at the chemical level that control how a material responds under strain – simple example is changing colour before failure. I’ll admit I understand this kind the least.
Wikipedia has a more complex break down, but I think the above categories work well for me.

Image by Carl Hastrich - modified from Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology: Pop a couple of capsules, connect to a catalyst and done! Simple as that.

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