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Intel Envisions Shape-Shifting Smartphones

If you think iPhones have set the template for the gadgets of the next 25 years, then get ready to think different. Intel is quietly engaged in some of the coolest research this side of Star Trek. At Intel's Pittsburgh lab, in collaboration with Carnegie Mellon University, senior researcher Jason Campbell says: "We're working on materials that can change their shapes." Think of a smartphone that resizes itself into a netbook when you're ready to surf the Web.
If you think iPhones have set the template for the gadgets of the next 25 years, then get ready to think different. Intel is quietly engaged in some of the coolest research this side of Star Trek. At Intel's Pittsburgh lab, in collaboration with Carnegie Mellon University, senior researcher Jason Campbell says: "We're working on materials that can change their shapes." Think of a smartphone that resizes itself into a netbook when you're ready to surf the Web.I caught up with Jason at a recent Intel research showcase in New York City, and shot a short video where he explains how these shape-shifting materials could one day enable a smartphone to expand to the size of a netbook once you take it out of your pocket, and even go spherical so you can stick it on your ear, Bluetooth-like, to make a call.

All this research is not pie-in-the-sky nonsense, but serious, incremental work that's being done as part of Intel and CMU's robotics studies. Right now, as Jason shows in the video, the team has built some robotic actuators, which are four- to six-inches long and cylindrical in shape, so that they can be placed, say, in a robot's arm. These actuators are the ultimate mash-up of electrical and mechanical components in an attempt to mimic a biological system.

(I remarked that the actuator he showed me, which has a series of toroidal electromagnets along the bottom perimeter, looked like a flagellum, which is a bacterium equipped with what amounts to a biological motor. That motor -- actually a bunch of proteins -- whips the hair like flagellum around to propel the organism along.)

Anyway, so I remarked to Jason that his team was obviously working to get these things down to fingernail size. "Actually, smaller," he replied.

The material they're working with is transparent silicon dioxide hemispheres. Spherical or cylindrical materials, you see, lend themselves to reshaping. Now here's where it gets really cool -- these materials will be programmed to be reshaped, via electrical impulses -- much like chips today can be reprogrammed via software.

"Imagine what you would do with this material," Campbell explained. "My cell phone is too big in my pocket. It's too small to do e-mail with effectively. It doesn't really fit my [ear] when I make a call, and if I don't have a pocket, I'm stuck.

So here's where the shape-shifting can be real-world useful. It takes the same amount of material to make a netbook-sized rectangle or a more densely-packed cellphone form-factor. How can this be? Because the larger rectangle is hollow, or "foamy," inside.

So I said to Jason, incredulously: "You told me that you foresee a time where people will have a cell phone that can become bigger or smaller, depending on what you use it for. It will have software that will allow the hardware to change its shape."

"That's right, depending on the application," Campbell replied. "So if you want to carry the device, you'd make it as small as possible [by] making it pack itself as densely as possible. When you go to [surf] the Web, you're going to make it as big as possible, you're going to make it "foamy."

Practically speaking -- after all, the whole point is that this isn't magic, but science -- tube-like structures built out of the silicon dioxide spheres will "roll around" each other to accomplish this larger/smaller resizing dance.

In separating the sci-fi aspect from the reality here, the big question is, when are we going to see this stuff outside of the research lab? In a few years, or in the next century? "In terms of the science," Campbell said, "we hope that we're three to five years away in terms of producing millimeter-scale versions of those electromagnetic prototypes [the robotic actuators Campbell displays at the beginning of the video]."

"In terms of me being able to buy it and put it in my pocket, that's a much more difficult forecasting problem, because I have to guess about manufacturing costs," Campbell said. "I won't do that. But we hope the science will be proved out in three to five years."

Watch the video and then check out the pictures below of the current actuators and the silicon dioxide material which will support the shape-shifting smartphone we should see one day in the not terribly distant future.

Here's the video:


Here are the still pictures:



An Intel rep shows the robotic actuators built by the Intel and Carnegie Mellon University team. (Click picture to enlarge, and to see 5 more shots.)

If you think this stuff is as cool as I do, please a comment below or write to me directly at [email protected].

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Alex Wolfe is editor-in-chief of InformationWeek.com.

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