The future of interactive tools for professionals

Programmable Matter is a two-decade ambitious project aimed at bridging the gap between the virtual and the tangible world
Two ladies are talking around a stack of 3D catoms (small balls like).Screens with CAD drawings.

Computer-aided design

The idea is to have a computer-aided design (CAD) tool – computer software that supports the design process – connected with a bunch of catoms. Once a part is designed, the information is transferred to the catoms, which then take the shape of the part, turning into a physical prototype made of tiny bots.

“The designer can then directly interact with the matter, touching the catoms he wants to move, like electronic clay” — Julien Bourgeois

Once the designer is happy with the result of his smart dough-playing, the data gets uploaded on to the CAD again to produce the final part to the precise parameters determined by the manipulations of the blob of catoms.

Flexible control panel

Graphical interfaces are more and more present in our day to day life, but also at work with sound engineers for instance. A digital screen displays sets of graphical controls inside a size constrained area. Take a smartphone, you use the same space to display various controls but cannot have them all on at the same time.

“Interface control objects in the tangible condition were easiest to acquire and, once acquired, were easier to manipulate”
— Tuddenham, Kirk, & Izadi

On the other hand, tangible panels allow accurate and quick interactions. They also enable an engineer, a camera operator or a pilot to operate without even watching their own hands.
But unlike graphical interfaces, all controls are spread across the same cluttered workspace requiring extensive training to handle them.

A flexible control panel made of programmable matter is a 100% tangible interface, with the flexibility of a graphical display.


Multi-purpose objects

In space, having multi-functionnal objects could be useful to save space and weight. Same tools cannot be used both inside and outside a spaceship, adaptable tools would therefore be beneficial.
Any payload content sent to space is carefully organized to be as much light- and space-saving as possible.

Items made of programmable matter are multi-purpose by essence as they can reshape according to the use case at hand.

The same tool is able to adapt itself to indoor and outer space use, for instance with and without wearing a space suit.

Historical Roadmap

Creation of programmable matter is an epic journey spanning over fifteen years and three continents.
Carnegie Mellon University logo.

Mass and magnetism investigations

Giant Helium Catom Aligning
"Big surfaces to manipulate tiny forces. The Giant Helium Catom provides researchers a macroscale instrument to investigate physical forces that affect microscale devices."

Summing up

The GHC was designed to approximate the relationship between a near-zero-mass (or weightless) particle and the force of electro-magnetic fields spread across the surface of such particles. Such studies are needed to understand the influence of surface tensions on the engineering of interfaces for nanoscale devices.

Carnegie Mellon University logo.

Creating motion without moving parts

Cylinder-shaped planar Catoms
"Employing magnetic force to generate motion, its operations as a research instrument build a bridge to a scale of engineering that will make it possible to manufacture self-actuating nano-system devices."

Summing up

The self-actuating, cylinder-shaped planar Catom tests concepts of motion, power distribution, data transfer and communication that will be eventually incorporated into ensembles of nano-scale robots. It provides a testbed for the architecture of micro-electro-mechanical systems for self-actuation in modular robotic devices.

Carnegie Mellon University logo.

Scaling down to millimeter

1 mm cylindrical Catom
"As a simplified approach cylindrical catoms were first built instead of spheres. We name here these cylindrical catoms the 2D Catoms."

Summing up

Realizing high-resolution programmable matter requires millimeter-scale catoms. Within the Claytronics project led by Carnegie Mellon University, researchers have developed and demonstrated millimeter-scale cylindrical catoms that are electrostatically actuated and self contained.

FEMTO-ST logo.

Moving to 3D Claytronic atom

3.6 mm 3D quasi-spherical Catom
"Cubes are difficult to move in 3D, cylinder cannot move in 3D and a real sphere is difficult to build at a mm-scale from a 2D sheet of material"

Summing up

Engineering a quasi-spherical module, called a 3D Catom in the context of the Claytronics project, able to fit all the requirements of programmable matter. It is logically placed in a regular Face-Centered Cubic lattice. Rotations allow these 3D Catoms to move from one grid position to another.

FEMTO-ST logo.

Introducing resilience through deformability

A deformable Catom, the Datom
"Moving a module in a modular robot is a very complex and error-prone process."

Summing up

Creating a new kind of deformable module allowing a movement which preserves the connection between the moving and the fixed modules using electrostatic actuator.

1
actuate & scale

Manage high-voltage and electrostatic actuators at small scales to achieve movement between modules.

2
power communicate

Include complex chip and circuitry  to drive data, power and actuators to sustain a distributed objects network.

3
integrate

Put together inside a custom shell each previously designed components reducing the total mass of a module.

4
self-reconfigure

Simulate and resolve clustering parallelization, reconfiguration optimization, mechanical resilience and error corrections.