Intel's shape-shifting programmable spheres let you play God

Take the shape-shifting sands of Spider-man's nemesis Sandman, mix him with the computer-controlled solids on Star Trek's Holodeck, and add the moldability of a lump of Play-Doh and you get Programmable Matter, the possibilities of which are beyond even the dreams of its its designers.

Nicknamed "Claytronics" by the geniuses working on it at Intel and Carnegie Mellon University, Programmable Matter is a way of creating physical shapes out of a mass of millions of 200-micrometer-diameter spheres — each about twice the width of a human hair. Every independently-moving sphere includes a tiny chipset, and each sphere, referred to as a "catom," is bound to its neighbors and a controlling processor using electrostatic charges (think a powered version of a balloon rubbed on your hair then stuck to a wall). Physical objects can be created from a vat of these spheres using software, molded by hand like clay, then made solid by adjusting the electrostatic charge.

What can you do with it, other than creating a real-life Golem? Its developers envision such boring applications as medical visualization, 3D design, antennas, shape-shifting handhelds and telepresence. In the real world, imagine a cellphone whose tiny keyboard can be stretched into a more usable size when needed, then scrunched down again so the phone fits in your pocket.

When will this godlike capability be a reality? Researchers are still shrinking down the catoms, so next year is out. But your grandkids may one day take programmable matter for granted as we take Wi-Fi as they prance around their homes on Mars.

Via Carnegie Melon University