MIT’s Programmable Shape-Changing Material Goes Far Beyond Origami

February 19, 2017 by Donald Krambeck

MIT has created transformable inflatables with various materials through a heat-sealing approach. Materials such as paper, plastics, and fabrics can be used to create interactive wearables and soft robotics.

MIT's tangible media group saw this area blooming and created the aeroMorph, a programmable inflatable with shape-changing behaviors.

A Self-Folding Origami-Like Inflatable: How and Why

The idea behind Aeromorph is to create an inflatable structure with sufficient degrees of freedom to fold like origami.

The structure is formed by using a CNC machine with special heads to allow for the proper formation. Two layers of fabric are placed directly on top of each other and a design is sealed together according to the user's design. The picture below illustrates the design rendered in software as well as in tangible form. 


Image courtesy of the MIT Tangible Media Lab


MIT's Tangible Media Group's primary research domain is pneumatic actuation and its endless industrial applications. A huge advantage of inflated structures featuring air pressure variation is that they can confer human interactions directly on the inflated materials without having any electronic components embedded. AeroMorph includes a software that allows simulation that has the ability to predict the change a shape will take once fabricated, various methods for fabrication of the structures, and a material library (that has been tested) with fabrication parameters that ensure reliability in the process.

Due to its heat-sealing approach, designers can choose from a variety of materials from fabrics, plastics, or paper. While it may just seem like origami, this technology has a huge potential to simplify the manufacturing process of inflatable structures as well as prove itself in interactive wearable materials and soft robotics. 

Possibilities in Soft Robotics and Interactive Wearables

Soft robotics is a sub-category of robotics that works primarily with non-rigid robots that are constructed with soft, formable materials such as the ones mentioned above. Soft robots have more degrees of freedom than conventional robots, which allows them to handle objects more precisely. One great example of soft robotics is the Octobot, which was designed and built using 3D printing and soft lithography.

Right now, scientists have created a robot that can not only swim but also walk along the sea floor and squeeze into tiny gaps on command. Recently, MIT has been working on pneumatically-actuated soft materials to incorporate in the design of the Tangible User Interfaces (TUI) as both input and output devices at their Tangible Media Group. Utilizing the compliance of soft actuators, as well as the speed and strength of the actuators pneumatic actuation, makes these interfaces highly appropriate for interactive wearables. 

In other ongoing research, MIT's CSAIL has created an ingestible origami robot that is made of a dissolvable pig intestine casing and can, for example, remove button batteries lodged inside of the stomach lining. At present, however, the origami "robot" in question needs to be directed by means of an external magnetic field. If they were to incorporate aeroMorph's technology and flexibility into the tiny origami robot, however, it could eliminate the need for the external controls.


Image courtesy of the MIT Tangible Media Lab


There are several other further possible applications of aeroMorph:

  • Shape-changing packaging has the advantage over traditional air cushion packaging in that aeroMorph can create folds with or without large cushion structures.
  • Interactive origami cranes (and other such shapes) could be created with a pre-recorded rhythm that would allow it to flap its wings and fly.
  • Haptic feedback gloves could be revolutionized as the inside of the glove could be able to change surface texture/pressure, allowing for pressure-guided navigation.

Changing the World, Softly

Soft robotics are already revolutionizing industries such as agriculture. As noted in a Forbes article from 2016, soft robotics incorporates the advantages provided by conventional robotics, longer working hours to provide higher productivity and more consistent sanitation standards. The precision of soft robotics equates to less damage to produce and, eventually, faster production—a crucial element in the time-sensitive field.

However, problems remain in integrating robots into the vegetable and fruit-packing field, with one of the most notable being that of optics, an imperative tool for quality control. Yet, the new developments achieved through self-folding and responsive materials, like those developed by MIT Media Lab, could present a solution to this shortcoming, providing an additional "sense" used to assess quality. With the role that soft robotics is already taking in disparate industries, the applications for this innovation within the field are both exciting and pragmatic.