The Future of Materiality, PART I: Illusionary High Tech

Droplets of water suspended by otherwise invisible, fine spider webAs designers, we are interested not only in the performance qualities of materials but also in their emotive attributes, those that connect with our senses, perceptions, and aesthetics.
During our latest SEEDS event titled “The Future of Materiality” we identified three main areas in which we believe, materials are evolving.
1. Illusionary High Tech
2. Makers Touch
3. Alter Nature
This article will be a three-part series. Each of them will expand on one of these three areas, exploring the future of materials through different examples as they relate to shifting social values such as the growing emotion and experience-driven economy.

Materials have evolved from simply being the matter that constitutes our physical world, into tangible interfaces with the power to translate and communicate the emotion of a product. Our senses are our receptors through which, we perceive, explore, understand and connect with objects in our environment.  Our first theme the “Illusionary High Tech” speaks to deceiving material characteristics that can’t be perceived with our habitual five senses. With the application of Living technologies, the new materials provide physical attributes to intangible, soft, sensorial elements, like sound, light and weight; enhancing our experience of the world through meta-function and extreme performance. Although the materials in this theme are most often revolutionary technologies applied purely to elevate functionality, performance and efficiency; they also create an illusionary experience that can “touch” us back in some way, leaving us mesmerized.

Crafting cells to self-assemble and self-react

We cannot talk about the almost magical characteristics of materials without considering the “making of” process, as the story of manufacturing increasingly becomes a big part of the material’s and the object’s allure. On this front what is most magical to us is the invisible process, the molecular robots working behind the scenes to enhance and customize the characteristics of materials. Although fiction-based, but a beautiful interpretation of this theme is a book by Priyanka Gationde “Nano Fiction”. While predicting manufacturing future ruled by Nano-fabrication; the book explores the particular theme of miniaturization of functional components with highly intelligent sensing and responding capabilities.

Changing materials

“Although we are a couple of decades away from building fully programmable materials, we are probably going to see programmed matter during this decade”

The programmed cells of today are designed to meet certain requirements once placed in a particular environment.
At that point the cells begin to rebuild into their final shape or in other instances, continuously reconfigure themselves to meet at-hoc needs. Some at-hoc responsive materials change shape by shifting the directionality of their cells. The better-known examples of the above are materials, which can shift their physical properties as a response to an electrical current include flexible polymers – which change their inherent rigidity, and liquid crystals – which align themselves in a specific direction to become lighter or darker in color.

Video: Polymer-inspired tower with control mechanism

Temperature regulating, Phase Changing Materials (PCM) are also a great example of responsive materials.  PCMs melt and solidify at a certain temperature, absorbing or releasing heat when the material changes from solid to liquid or vice versa. PCMs can often be found in performance fabrics, adding thermo-shifting characteristics to clothing, but the scale of their application is growing rapidly, and today we find examples in many other industries such as aerospace and construction.
RavenSkin, developed by RavenBrick is an innovative wall insulation material, which absorbs heat during the day to keep the interior cool and slowly releases the stored heat at night to warm the building when the sun goes down. RavenSkin works in a reversed fashion to a traditional insulation, which blocks all heat equally at all times. The core of this system is a PCM, which delays the transfer of heat from the sun to the interior of the house.
Although we are a couple of decades away from building fully programmable materials, we are probably going to see programmed matter during this decade.  Today we can already control matter at the atomic level through vastly spreading Nanotechnologies and Nano coatings.

Video: RavenBrick

Intelligent Coatings
P2i developed by Dr Stephen Coulson of Durham University in UK is a type of liquid-repelling, Nano-coating technology originally produced for the UK government as a protective coating for soldiers’ uniforms to make them more effective against chemical attack.  Today this coating is used as a waterproofing electronics, stain resistant finish for textiles, and even as a drag-reducing finish on cycling equipment used during the 2012 Olympics.

An example of similar approach, which is already on the market, is “sprayed on antennas”. At Google’s ‘Solve for X’ conference earlier this year, Utah-based startup Chamtech introduced a spray-on antenna, which could not only improve cell phone reception but also convert any object into a functional antenna. The signal booster covers a surface in Nano capacitors, which align themselves to create a wireless antenna surface.  The company claims the product would work on a number of surfaces including walls, trees, clothing, even underwater. All of this is possible because a unit cell is designed to configure itself to behave in a certain way.

Mimicking Nature

MIT is working on a spray-able solar cell material, made from two different proteins derived from plants, which when mixed together at a particular concentration self-assemble into a complex formula, which can be used as a solar cell.  Since this finish is in liquid form you could theoretically spray it on any surface, for that surface to become solar cells. This could be produced very inexpensively, because the proteins needed to manufacture this finish could be derived from any plant. One is a pigment-protein membrane complex photosystem-I (PS-I), which exists in all plants and is at the core of photosynthesis.  The others are TiO2 and ZnO Nano-particles, which are quite common, and found in almost all paints.

A group of Prof. Alfred J. Crosby at University of Massachusetts at Amherst is studying the feet of gecko, and imaging creation of super glue-based shoes and gloves to allow humans to climb vertical surfaces.  The material they are developing is planned to have the properties of glue, but given the correct amount of pressure and positioning it should either stay firmly attached to the surface or easily detached.

Changing the weight of physicality

Featherweight is understood as pure weight and mass reduction is another dimension, which adds surprising and magical qualities to materials and products today.  We have been used to certain weight and mass of the materials, and although both of the characteristics have been evolving over the centuries, it seems as in the last couple of decades they evolved so fast that they often take us by surprise and awe.
This graphic shows a detail of the world’s lightest material: Aerographite. Open carbon tubes form a fine mesh and offer a low density of 0.2 milligram per cubic centimetre. The picture was taken with a scanning electron microscope (TEM). Credit: TUHHThis graphic shows a detail of the world’s lightest material: Aerographite. Open carbon tubes form a fine mesh and offer a low density of 0.2 milligram per cubic centimetre. The picture was taken with a scanning electron microscope (TEM). Credit: TUHH

Nanoparticle-based materials such as Aerographite, a carbon-based nanomaterial, are resulting in super-lightweight materials with immense strength and versatility. Aerographite developed by a German team of scientists from Kiel University and the Hamburg University of Technology is a stable, ultra-light mesh of carbon nanotubes.  Described as the lightest material in the world, it is six times lighter than air. Aerographite is produced by coating zinc oxide crystals with a fine layer of carbon vapor, then removing the zinc oxide with the addition of hydrogen to leave the micro structure that forms Aerographite.

During the building process, the so-called sacrificial template, a crystallised zinc oxide (white), is “sacrificed” when hydrogen is given into the process. Steam and Zinc leak out, the tubes of Aerographite remain. Credit: TUHH
During the building process, the so-called sacrificial template, a crystallised zinc oxide (white), is “sacrificed” when hydrogen is given into the process. Steam and Zinc leak out, the tubes of Aerographite remain.
Credit: TUHH

The Aerographite can be compressed 30 times smaller than its original volume, allowing it to support up to 40,000 times its own weight. Additionally the material can revert to its original size without damage to its structure when the compression is released. The use of such materials could not only be extremely viable in automotive and electronic sectors as a considerable weight reduction and efficiency boosting measure, but it also has a potential of transforming non-conductive materials such as plastics into conductive and therefore interactive surfaces.

The tetrapods of the zinc oxide form an ideal basis for the robust material Aerographite. Credit: TUHH The tetrapods of the zinc oxide form an ideal basis for the robust material Aerographite. Credit: TUHH

Julia Greer, assistant professor of materials science and mechanics, is part of a team of researchers from Caltech, HRL Laboratories, LLC, and the University of California, Irvine, who also have developed one of the world’s lightest solid materials. The new material, is called a micro-lattice, and it relies on a lattice architecture of tiny hollow tubes made of nickel-phosphorous which are angled to connect at nodes, forming repeating, asterisk-like unit cells in three dimensions. Everything between the tubes is open air. In fact, the structure consists of 99.99% open volume. With a density of just 0.9 milligrams per cubic centimetre, it is approximately 100 times lighter than Styrofoam™. It is ultra-low in density; it has incredible strength and energy absorption rate, making it potentially useful for applications ranging from battery electrodes to protective shielding.


The weightless future is not the only direction striving to modify the physical intangibility of materials; we also see around us the increasing transparency of materials and their applications. Researchers at Caltech are currently experimenting with silver and gold Nano-particles, used in the Gothic Period to enhance colors in stained glass windows. These gold and silver Nano-particles have very interesting properties: depending on their shape and size, their color changes. Because of that characteristic they never fade and this explains why many of the old stained glass windows are still so vivid in color.

St. Paul's Cathedral. And St. Michael. Gudula Cathedral in BrusselsSt. Paul’s Cathedral. And St. Michael. Gudula Cathedral in Brussels

You can use this kind of approach to place the Nano-particles in a specific fashion, which can result in a specific functionality. For example, you can hide small objects by programming them to mould around, instead of reflect the light, creating similar effect to stones in a river, which are invisible from a certain distance.
Beyond transparent materials, we are also seeing transparent and interactive materials being developed around the world, led by the use of translucent and flexible displays in the consumer electronic industry. Some examples include Japanese mobile service provider DoCoMo which, together with IT provider Fujitsu co-developed a prototype of a smart phone with a double-sided transparent OLED screen. Hewlet Packard just secured a US patent in July for its see-through screen technology, and Portuguese electronics company Ynvisible is developing ultra thin flexible transparent electro chromic displays.

Adding physicality to the intangible

As our worlds migrate away from physicality in materials, we see a trend of adding physicality to intangible virtual experiences. As the technological revolution storms forward, we desire objects and environments to stimulate the entire spectrum of our senses. We don’t want to just see and touch, we want to feel, and experience everything on fully sensorial level. We desire fully immersive experiences, and for products that often mean translating the virtual communication into a physical sensation.

Layering Reality.
Although augmented reality has been around for some time, we are starting to see some very interesting product applications. That is the case of Google Glass, an augmented reality head-mounted device, which displays information in a smart-phone like format. Since it is hands free and interacts with the Internet, it creates a new perspective on reality as the user walks by. Because of Google Glass’ resemblance to a pair of stylish eyeglasses; renowned fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg showcased it during the Spring 2012 show at the New York Fashion Week.

Video of google glasses at Diane Von Furstenberg fashion show

Other interesting examples include the BMW smart windshield 3D projection, which projects the current speed and navigation instructions onto the windshield, and thus directly into the driver’s field of vision.  The information is projected in full-color and can include information such as warnings, messages, and road layouts.  GM also offers head-up display technology in their cars that shows data such as vehicle speed and navigation instructions.  To create this head-up display, GM’s R&D group coated the inside of the windshield with transparent phosphors.  Compact ultraviolet lasers inside the car cause the phosphors to light up.  The lasers aim where the forward-facing sensors detect the road or obstacles.

Other, more artistic explorations to adding physicality to the intangible include projects like The E-Static Shadows, which consists on an electronic textile system developed by artist/researcher Dr. Zane Berzina and Jackson Tan. In this system, the electrostatic energy enhances the sensory experience of materials.  The textile acts as an electrostatic mirror that depicts the charges created by people, making the un-known or un-seen – in this case electrostatic energy – into known or seen.

From Haptics to Physical Skin.
Haptics are also explored in various art installations, where building direct emotional connection to the audience is of most importance. Everyware, a Korean creative computing agency is responsible for creating “Soak”; an interactive artwork utilizing Microsoft Kinect, which first appears as a blank canvas, but when the surface is touched the elasticized fabric stretches and colours bleed outwards from the point of touch creating mesmerizing, illusionary effect. The future vision of haptics is however about expanding beyond electronic objects and being incorporated in our own bodies, turning our skin into “digital surface”.
Interdisciplinary Fashion Designer Nancy Tilbury and Visual Artists 125 Creative give us a glimpse of what the future of fashion in 2050 will look like in their short film titled “Digital Skins Body Atmospheres”.

They picture a future where ingestible particles could form functional and decorative features on our skin.

KnoWear – a studio with a new approach to branding – imagines the future where consumers acquire implants designed, genetically coded, and decorated with the hallmarks of the brand. While at Carnegie Mellon’s Human-Computer Interaction Institute, PH.D. Candidate Chris Harrison developed “Skinput”, which turns human body into a touch screen.

Various other advanced concepts exist around the idea imprinting human skins. Both Philips Design and Frog Design have developed concepts of tattoos embedded with identification technology, Nano-sensors and micro-processing components, which have a potential of transforming human skin into an interactive surface.

Touching Sound.
There is also the experience of touching sound. PhD student Bruno Zamborlin developed Mogees, a project showing how it is possible to perform gesture recognition just with contact microphones and transform every surface into an interactive board.

Through gesture recognition techniques, different kinds of fingers-touch were detected and associated with sounds by using two audio synthesis techniques: Physic modelling, which consists in generating the sound by simulating physical laws and Concatenative synthesis (audio mosaicing), in which the sound of the contact microphone is associated with its closest frame present in a sound database. Other interesting projects include, the sound scanner created by Berit Greinke, which translates patterns and materials from textiles into sounds. Beyond touching sound many innovators are also exploring the idea of materials, which are enhanced by sound. Acustic Botany by David Benqué who studied Design Interactions at the Royal College of Art in London, explores the possibilities of manipulating flowers and plants through a combination of traditional techniques, genetic engineering and synthetic biology, with the aim of having them produce music.

Into 4D.
The Sephora Sensorium “First Scent” Film is a great example of fully sensorial experience of materiality of scent.  The D4D collaborated with four famous perfumers to create six original multisensory experiences to express their first memories of scent. This film and its companion fragrances combined to form the Life At First Scent exhibit in Sephora’s Sensorium where visitors experienced the fragrance and film simultaneously.

Projected on both sides of a forced perspective hallway, each media surface spaned 8ft tall x 15ft wide, creating a 4D sensorial environment dedicated to the magic of scent.

Moving forward

As we move forward we see increasing multi-disciplinary teams joining efforts in order to develop and apply emerging Illusionary High-Tech materials. Material scientists enable design fictions to materialize. They create an array of new technology developments, which don’t always have a direct or immediate application. Designers on the other hand, dream of the most amazing projects based on invisibility, ultra-low density, glue-less super glue, imagining the potential of gecko-ware to climb walls parkour style or, vivid colors that never fade and invisible cities just like Italo Calvino envisioned.
We finally realize that the future is here, sooner than expected and more exciting than anticipated. Technology’s fast pace has now become the driver, the enabler, the engine and the time keeper, setting up the speed at which, our lives must move.

THE FUTURE OF MATERIALITY: Illusionary High-Tech, Part 1 of 3
By Magdalena Paluch and Liliana Becerra.

We would like to specially thank Ashwin Gopinath, Research Associate at CALTECH for his valuable contribution and insight. His knowledge and input was fundamental for the writing of this article.

Magdalena PaluchAbout Magdalena Paluch
Magdalena is a Trends and Innovation Strategist at Toyota. She brings a strategic design perspective to industrial design, prioritizing a user-centric design approach, materials research, and industrial ecology. > More about Magdalena Paluch

Liliana BecerraAbout Liliana Becerra
Liliana Becerra is an independent design consultant, editor, curator, educator and entrepreneur, based in Los Angeles, California.
> More about Liliana Becerra

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