When Ted Nelson said in his 1974 book Computer Lib, “You can and must understand computers NOW,” there would have been more than a few people who thought he was jumping the gun. In hindsight, Ted was bang on.
We’re on another precipice of dramatic innovation as we get closer to closing the gap between technology and physical objects. We may not have satisfied Peter Thiel with flying cars yet, but smart materials are opening up new ways to communicate, connect and automate our lives.
The possibilities of smart materials are extraordinary.
Imagine not having to check the weather before you get dressed, because your clothes will adjust themselves to regulate your body temperature. Imagine your kids being able to change the color of their bedroom walls by pressing a button.
This is what the future looks like, so if there’s ever a time to learn about smart materials, it’s now.
Wearable tech is a trend that’s been growing in interest lately, but hasn’t quite taken off into the mainstream just yet. This tie is more novelty than utility, but there’s a full DIY tutorial in the video below.
This idea has been used to develop coverall suits for Formula One mechanics, full suits for astronauts and jackets for motorcyclists. The clothes are fitted with temperature sensors and a heating/cooling system to regulate body temperature.
For motorcyclists or scooter riders, the jacket can be plugged into the vehicle while riding to charge its batteries, giving the rider up to an hour of body heat regulation when they’re not even on the bike.
Shape memory polymers is a fancy name for materials like metal and plastic that can ‘remember’ a shape they’ve been molded into. After molding the material, you can heat it to a different temperature, but when you cool it again it will remember the molded shape.
This is a really cool way that shape memory polymers will be used in the future: airplane wings are complex and inefficient in their current forms when compared to how adaptive bird wings are during flight. With these smart materials, wings can be created that will adapt to suit the conditions of each stage of a flight.
Based on the reactions in the office when I explained it I may be the only one who loves this idea, but imagine wearing a long-sleeved shirt that automatically shortens its sleeves when it detects the room temperature getting warmer. Auto-rolling sleeves! Amazing.
Not only that, but this shirt is designed to hold its wrinkles and creases until given a burst of hot air (for instance, from a hair dryer). It then pops back into its normal shape. That’s sure to take some time off your ironing!
Glass is generally see-through, but this smart glass can become opaque at the flip of a switch. This means you can use the same piece of glass for a partition, window, privacy screen and projection surface.
I found three examples of this tech in use, but I’m sure there are loads more. The first is simply heat-activated paint as part of a section of wallpaper. As the temperature of the room increases, the paint shows itself.
Smart materials are very slowly entering our world, but there are plenty of opportunities to get involved and play with these materials yourself.
One of the difficulties, however, is that they are so hard to get hold of in small quantities, and there is very little information available about how they’re made and how to use them.
But as Catarina Mota says in her TED talk, we can all work to change this:
”The more people experiment with materials, the more researchers are willing to share their research, and manufacturers their knowledge, the better chances we have to create technologies that truly serve us all.”
If you want to experiment with these materials yourself and explore their possibilities, here are a few ways to get started:
This site was started by Catarina Mota and Kirsty Boyle in 2009 to share information and experiments for DIY production of smart materials. They collect videos, information about various materials and tools for production, and details of experiments by other makers.
This post on the TED blog by Catarina introduces five smart materials and explains how they work. It includes detailed pictures and videos to show the possibilities of materials like conductive inks and thermochromic pigments that change color at different temperatures (shown in the video below).
Syuzi Pakhchyan’s book Fashioning Technology includes projects to make interactive plush toys, color-changing blinds and more. Her website includes even more tutorials, with a focus on wearable technology.
Get learning, now
Catarina’s TED talk ends on an inspiring and powerful note regarding the importance of learning about these materials now:
”Just keep in mind that acquiring preemptive knowledge about emerging technologies is the best way to ensure that we have a say in the making of our future.”
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Belle has spent the past four years as a freelance writer and social media consultant. She has written for The Next Web, Desktop Magazine and Social Media Examiner.
Belle now spends her days wielding a pencil as Attendly's Head of Content.