Brain-stretching design: The 10 best items from MoMA's Elastic Mind show

What is this woman doing? Why is her head half-submerged in a bubble filled with bees? The bubble is a prototype of an invention that The Museum of Modern Art in New York (MoMA) is currently exhibiting called Design and the Elastic Mind (through May 12).

When you hear about "modern art" you may think Van Gogh, but this show outdoes anything you're likely to find at a science or technology museum. Elastic Mind focuses on the intersection of art and design with science and technology, which means that it's showing some of the very technologies that we love to feature here at DVICE, including this purifying water bottle, a video game that injures you when you make a mistake, and these plant-filled air purifiers.

It's also chock full of fantastic and crazy innovations that we had never seen before. Hit the Continue link below to see 10 of our favorites, from shoes that harvest energy when you walk to robotic walls and DNA origami. Oh, and we'll tell you why you, too, may someday be sticking your head into a bubble full of bees.

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10. Like moths to a flame — precisely
This beautiful lamp, created by British artist Geoffry Mann, depicts literally the path of a moth around a light bulb. Mann was able to map the path using video technology, then made it into a solid object using a 3-D printer. This was our favorite of the exhibit's many amazing examples of 3-D printing technology. Check others out here.

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9. Walls that keep on changing

Chuck Hoberman's emergent surface sculpture at first glance seems to be one of the more mundane contributions to the show. Although it's a huge and striking mobile sculpture, its retractable metal flaps are being used to make simple geometric patterns. However, this kinetic wall is a preview of what Hoberman calls a "new generation of adaptive buildings," structures with "skins" that are controlled by computer and transform based on light and heat levels, rain, or space use. He's working now to integrate these robotic walls into several building projects— for example they'll provide shelter from the rain when they get wet but can be nearly invisible at other times. Listen to Hoberman talk about his work here. Photo courtesy of Alex Terzich.

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8. Bring loved ones back — as fuel cells!

You can turn your deceased relatives into a diamond with Life Gem, and Ink After Life lets you turn them into printer ink. James Auger and Jimmy Loizeau want you to turn grandpa into a fuel cell. The concept is called AfterLife and according to the artists, "this electronic state may be interpreted as a form of regeneration." The cell is charged with the decomposed gastric acids of the corpse, and can be used to charge any number of things including vibrators (their suggestion).

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7. Nonstop Shoes keep working when you stop walking

Speaking of batteries, these sneakers, designed by Emili Padros, collect energy as you walk. At the end of the day you can take them off and power a lamp (pictured). Or a whole family can team its shoes together to power a larger appliance. We can totally see this working in remakes of "poor orphan" musicals like Annie! and Oliver! Unfortunately, we have no idea how they work. And though they were first designed in 1999 and others have patented similar ideas, they don't seem any closer to showing up in your next pair of Campers.

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6. Lightweeds are interactive 'shadowplants'

Lightweeds are kind of like virtual pets: their life is based on a complicated computer algorithm but their reactions are based on human interaction. The "location sensitive light projection" project is the creation of Dutch artist Simon Heijdens. As you walk near the wall where the plants are projected, the plants wave in the "breeze" that you create. Fully grown plants can use this as an opportunity to pollinate: soon your wall will be teeming with dandelions.

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5. A vase made by bees

What will the future look like? I have two words for you: bee slaves. It took 40,000 bees about a week to make this vase. They built it around a scaffolding (removed after construction) made by Slovac designer Toma Gabzdil Libertiny. It could have taken the bees a bit longer depending on the season or the weather— the vase is meant to be a counterpoint to the breakneck speed at which we manufacture objects today.

Vases are meant to hold flowers, and of course flowers were what enabled the bees to produce the vase in the first place. Deep thoughts, these. In the future besides being useful for making vases and honey, bees slaves will be our doctors (see #1, below).


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4. DNA Origami makes viruses look happy

Paul W.K. Rothemund makes origami out of DNA. Smallest. Origami. Ever. Rothemund uses DNA from a harmless virus and "pinches" it into shape with "staples" made from of much shorter DNA strands. Above is a smiley face made from DNA, but Rothemund has also made letters and words, maps, and even a larger image of a double helix. Each "sculpture" is so small that fifty billion could float in a drop of water. If you want much more information about how this works or how to do this at home, you can read the original Nature paper here.

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3. Too much research? Make kids do the work

Wouldn't it be great if we could create biofuels like ethanol and biodiesel out of algae? Turns out that some species of algae make hydrogen out of light and water: if we could harvest from them we could collect the gas cheaply. Trouble is, there are millions of strains of algae out there, and we don't know which ones work best. A group of researchers had a bright idea: why not send testing kits to schools all over the world and have each of them test a few strains for hydrogen productivity? The Lunchbox Laboratory was born from this idea. Each box (made out of recycled materials, of course) contains all the tools necessary to do the testing. It's educational, fun, and useful for the planet! Middle schoolers, we sense some extra-credit coming your way…

2. Online Dating: There's a better way
This C++ program called I Want You To Want Me operates on a vertical LCD touchscreen and tries to visualize, neaten, sort and make sense of the online dating world. Each blue balloon is a male profile, pink is for girls. Touch one of the floating balloons and a small picture pops up, along with a speech bubble of an answer from that person's online profile. Touch the balloon again and it pops. You can look at speech bubbles from different age groups, each answering a stock question. The program even matches couples when people are looking for the same thing (sense of humor comes up frequently).

The project is brand new, commissioned by the museum for the exhibit. It will probably remain an art project instead of a working dating service, but it shows that there's no need for online dating profiles to resemble old-fashioned classified ads. Learn more here.


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1. Are you terminally ill? Ask a bee

Bees can do more than just build vases (see #5). They have an incredible sense of smell and can be trained to target a specific odor. With that in mind, Susana Soares created beautiful glass orbs that are "alternative diagnosis tools" that use bees to tell you if you're sick or ovulating.

Let's say that a certain disease manifests itself in your breath. The idea is that you'd have bees trained to recognize that scent. You breathe into the glass globe (pictured at the top of this article) — if your breath does contain that scent the bees will fly towards the small compartment. If not, they'll fly around obliviously. The picture above is of a globe where the bees will fly towards the time of the month that a woman's breath indicates. If she's ovulating, the bees should fly to the largest chamber, the middle and smallest chambers are for pre- and post-ovulation respectively.