The project fits a mechatronic model in that it is truly multidisciplinary—the idea crosses the frontiers of computer science, modular robotics, and systems nanotechnology. When you watch the videos, your mind races in anticipation of all the cool things you might be able to do with a 3D
display of electronic information.
The researchers have some interesting application ideas including using programmable matter to create versions of ourselves that can be used to attend meetings to using this concept to create what Mowry calls “resizable electronics.” Personally, I find the resizable electronics idea more useful
that a 3D display of myself. Imagine your cell phone morphing a regular sized keypad on one end when you wish to type something, then morphing back into the size of your cell phone when done! (A lot less to pack on planes.)
According to the researchers, this technology is possible because of the increasing speeds of computer processing predicted in Moore's Law. Their goal is to give information an interactive form that enables you to sense and experience a digital environment that is indistinguishable from reality. That goal is a ways off, but you can’t help but wonder “what if . . .?”
The basic building block of this 3D information is the claytronic atom, or catom. Basically it is a type of miniature computer roughly the size of a BB. Currently, the researchers are exploring how to connect and coordinate each catom to each other through an electrostatic technique.
The electrostatic technique came about as a second idea. Magnetics, the first idea, made the modular robots too heavy. The researchers built large prototype catoms filled with helium and have been moving them around with static electricity. Other challenges include how to manage friction, energy transfer, and heat management. Electrical and computer engineering researchers are working on power transfer and adhesion.
Should this technology become practical, it stands a good chance of replacing 3D printers. But that time seems a ways off. But that should not stop you from checking out the videos and letting them excite your imagination!