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.