Programmable Shape-Changing Film

MIT’s Media Lab is a hotbed of innovation, combining technology, art, and science to create projects that offer an imaginative glimpse of what the future might hold. uniMorph, a project out of the Tangible Media Group, is a prime example — a way to make thin, flexible materials that can be programmed to bend, curl, fold and flap.

The shape-changing films are made from polyethylene, a kind of plastic that expands when heated. If it’s bonded to a material that doesn’t expand as quickly, the composite film will start to bend. When the film cools down, it will return to its previous shape. And that’s true whether the heat comes from the environment (e.g. air temperature, solar radiation), or by passing an electric current through copper circuits etched into the film itself.

Programmable Shape-Changing Film: uniMorph

Lots of three-dimensional shapes and mechanisms can be created by changing the shape of the film or the pattern of the copper circuits, or by affixing the film to stiff sheets of material. With the addition of a few sensors and an embedded computing module, it’s even possible to make uniMorph objects that can hold a particular shape indefinitely by regulating their own temperature.

One example created by the research team is an incandescent light fixture that blooms like a flower as the bulb’s heat activates strips of uniMorph film attached like hinges to petal-shaped plates. Another is a bookmark that curls up to aim LEDs at the page when a light sensor detects that it’s too dark to read. Many of the prototype use-cases are controlled via Arduino.

Programmable Shape-Changing Film: uniMorph

Though uniMorph isn’t likely to show up in commercial products anytime soon, it’s an important step toward being able to manufacture shape-changing objects that could be useful in everyday life. The researchers are optimistic that the techniques and principles they’ve demonstrated can be improved upon with other materials, applied at larger scales, and combined with research into other dynamic materials properties like color and stiffness.

uniMorph will be presented at the 2015 UIST symposium next week in Charlotte, N.C. Learn more in the video below.

Related: Printoo, ThinFilm, inFORM, Project Jacquard

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