A group of materials designers at MIT is working on soft smart composite materials that have all kinds of potentially cool applications. One of my favorites is a device that goes from a bracelet to a smartphone and then when a call comes in it automatically bends into a slightly curved shape.

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The composite materials technology has been dubbed PneUI, and was developed by MIT’s Tangible Media Group, led by media arts and sciences professor Hiroshi Ishii and PhD candidate Lining Yao. Together with colleagues Ryuma Niiyama, Jifei Ou, Sean Follmer and Clark Della Silva, they constructed soft, multi-layer materials that are pneumatically-actuated, meaning they contain tiny air channels that cause the material to change shape when air is pumped in or sucked out.

Air was ideal for this because it’s a lightweight, compressible and environmentally benign energy source, the group explained in their paper (PDF) for the ACM Symposium on User Interface Software and Technology (UIST) in Scotland this week. Their model for a soft composite interface includes an elastomer layer usually made from rubber to house the air bubbles, a sensing layer and a second structural layer in various patterns that could be made from silicone, fabric, wood and even coated paper folded like origami.

In addition to shape-shifting lights that curl up like a pig’s tail and buildings that could change height, the designers also envision PneUI being used for a wearable wristband. Need to look something up on the Internet? Pull off the band and it flattens into a tablet-like shape with a touch-screen interface. Then, when a call comes in, the surface changes again to a slightly curved state, the designers reported in their paper.

Another practical application I liked from their video showing PneUI’s potential was a soft transformable case for a tablet computer that contains air pockets. The material is programmed to work with games so you could be playing one involving racing cars and the case would expand under your fingertips to indicate which direction you should steer.

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Although the slick-looking flexible wristband made using PneUI is still in development, I could see consumer products companies picking up some of the other ideas. Compressed air is less risky to try with small electronics and accessories such as the transformative tablet case and the swirly light. That light already looks like it belongs at Ikea. When smart tech goes soft, it somehow becomes more accessible — and fun.

Photo: MIT’s PneUI, a pneumatically-actuated soft composite material, in bracelet form. Credit: Tangible Media Group (video)