This project will explore a material-driven approach to designing shape-changing interfaces that are either soft or possess tunable stiffness. Whereas most such interfaces require embedded rigid electronic components, in contrast the inherent structural and other properties of interactive morphing materials drive their sensing and actuation capabilities, from overall shape change to the dynamic tuning of characteristics such as stiffness, opacity, and phase. Because their properties are intrinsic, many of these materials can be fabricated as thin sheets or films in support of applications such as medical and wearable devices that require conformability and compliance. Imagine a morphing cast, for example, that could self-assemble by wrapping around the arm. The initial pattern of holes on the sheet to ensure conformability during the self-wrapping would subsequently seal via self-growth and self-stiffening of the cast. During the healing process, as the arm swells and shrinks, the cast would sense those changes and self-tighten or self-loosen as required; it might also self-degrade gradually to become lighter and more flexible as healing progresses. This project will lay the foundation for a future where physical materials become interfaces that sense and respond dynamically in support of a fundamental transformation in computational interaction modalities. Since morphing materials can be applied to many aspects of human endeavor, research outcomes will provide broad benefits to society in a wide range of areas including accessibility, learning, future workforce development and sustainable manufacturing.
The research team will take a multifaceted approach and tightly couple the research with courses and independent studies in order to generate a range of prototypes using interactive morphing materials, a framework of design principles, a library of morphing mechanisms, a design tool that facilitates the creation of interfaces leveraging morphing materials, and a formal design study to validate the effectiveness of a morphing material interface. The project will start by clustering examples of existing and potential interactive morphing material scenarios in participatory design sessions with domain experts, design students, and design professionals to learn what they can imagine creating and figure out how their ideas can be mapped to critical design parameters, including behavior (both temporal and geometrical), input and output modalities (e.g., light-responsive self-stiffening), and functionality. Prototypes based on these ideas will be implemented, and by conducting user studies (including semi-structured interviews and pre- and post-questionnaires), a general evaluation plan and metrics for validating performance both qualitatively and quantitatively will be formulated. This will be followed by development of toolkits incorporating a library of morphing mechanisms presented as components for interface design. These mechanisms will be of two basic types: those that convert physical, analog stimulus (such as wetness or temperature) into morphing output, and those that can be activated with a digital signal. In addition to mechanism development, computational tools based on geometrical principles that can be generalized across different physical morphing principles will be created. A fast and accurate simulator enabled by the integration of machine learning and finite element analysis will be leveraged to derive the geometrical principles of the underlying computational model, and the design methods and enabling tools will be applied to conduct in-depth investigations of three application areas: advanced manufacturing, morphing wearables, and the future of creative work.
This award reflects NSF's statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation's intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.