If you want to build the future, you need to understand smart materials

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.

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Smart materials have a fairly vague definition, which points to any material that exhibits ‘smart behaviors.’ Interactive Architecture define smart behaviors as:

”Smart behaviour occurs when a material can sense some stimulus from its environment and react to it in a useful, reliable, reproducible and usually reversible manner.”

So essentially, smart materials detect changes in their environment and react to them – such as detecting a shift in temperature and responding by changing color. Examples include:

  • ink that conducts electricity
  • heat-reactive materials that change shape or color based on temperature
  • UV reactive materials that change shape or color based on UV rays
  • fabrics that light up
  • shape memory polymers that ‘remember’ a shape they were molded into

Catarina Mota gave a great TED talk about smart materials and the ways that anyone can experiment with them, including a demonstration of materials that react to light and temperature.

Catarina makes a great argument for getting involved with smart materials and exploring their uses:

”We can’t shape what we don’t understand, and what we don’t understand and use ends up shaping us… if we are to live in a world made of smart materials, we should know and understand them.”

Our world is already changing

These prototypes and research projects will give you an idea of how possible these kind of futuristic products actually are.


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.

light up tie
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The LED lights change colors and light up in reaction to sounds made by the wearer.

Even if this isn’t your thing, watch the first minute or two of the video below. It’s pretty incredible to see someone sewing electronics with conductor thread.

Puddlejumper coat

Another item of debatable utility is this cool rain coat. Water sensors in the arms and back of the coat make the lights in the fabric react by lighting up in a pattern that mimics raindrops.

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It’s a pretty fun way to enjoy rainy weather though, right?

Cooling jacket

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.

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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.

Adaptable airplane wings

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.

So it’s magic, basically.

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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.

Auto-rolling shirt sleeves

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.

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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!

Opaque glass

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.

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Disappearing ink

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.

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The second example is a poster which works in the same way, but you can see in the pictures how body heat can affect the paint as well.

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Lastly, and perhaps my favorite, is the calendar version, which uses the cool temperatures of nighttime to erase the ink. Tell me that’s not awesome.

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Not just for scientists

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.

5 smart materials

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).

GCSE Bitesize

The BBC’s GCSE Bitesize blog has an easy-to-understand introduction to smart materials, which explains what each one can do.

Smart materials for DIY projects

Caterina Mota and Nick Vermeer gave a talk on smart materials in 2011 with this slide deck, which explains a whole stack of smart materials in detail.

Fashioning technology

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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.”