The Promise of Programmable Objects.

Why shape-shifting products could change how we design.

Patrick van Hoof
February 18, 2016

Dependence on solid materials constrains how we currently design physical products. It gives physical objects a permanent nature, and while design is an inherently human endeavor that leverages form, function, and interaction to meet user needs, product design has had a difficult time meeting the ever-changing standards of what users expect from their objects.

It has everything to do with making designs fit a changing context. There isn’t usually a one-size-fits-all for every situation in which the product is being used. This has become an especially relevant notion in the digital age—a time when we use a variety of devices and platforms, often with a mobile element. Web design forced us to consider a more economically-efficient design approach.

How do we bring the same flexibility and efficiency to physical products that we’ve achieved with digital?

Consider “responsive design”—designing and developing so that users get the same experience regardless of where they are or what device they’re using. The benefit of something being responsive is that it is not only functional, but it’s also emotional. It allows the creator to build a stronger connection between users and their products, because they can accommodate change, and therefore, life, like never before.

While all these efforts have enabled us to increase ease of use, efficiency, effectiveness, and productivity, we haven’t been able to make commercially-viable physical products that are based on the same design philosophy of fluidity. After all, making intangible designs change on-demand is infinitely easier than making physical ones.

That’s exactly the problem currently being tackled in a variety of industries and academic fields: How do we bring the same sort of flexibility and efficiency to physical products that we’ve achieved with digital?

Most experts refer to this Holy Grail of changing physical properties as “programmable” objects or products. People have already started exploring this area of digital-physical interaction and have created products like a digitally-augmented cord that turns the power off when pinched with fingers, an app to modify appliances or even connect them to work in synergy, smart flying furniture that adapts to its users, and conceptually more interesting ideas of objects that transform.

Designers will finally be able to not just take a human-centered approach, but an individual-centered one, too. We can accommodate for changing, unique physical properties, such as by making a chair perfectly fit each individual who sits on it. Taking it a step further, the design will change to accommodate a specific purpose and context such as a time, place, or group of people. Imagine using one glass to drink anything, from brandy to orange juice, or one car that morphs to adapt to road, weather, and speed conditions.

Now let’s take this to the extreme: Why limit yourself to changing the design of an object for the same functional use when you can change the design to allow for different uses? This means that you would be able to manually transform—or perhaps even reprogram autonomously—a table to become a chair and then a surfboard. The only limitation here would be the total volume and weight of the object, which of course will remain the same.

Speaking of manual transformation, there is another major theme that will become relevant in the new era of responsive, fluid design: user-driven design. Other than make design anticipatory based on data known about the user, we can also create tangible triggers. Design can literally be in the user’s hands so that they can shape a digitally-enabled object to make it feel as if they are communicating with a living thing.

Harnessing phase-shifting liquids.

Aside from the many other technologies that are being developed by scientists all over the world, one promising new enabler of programmable objects is phase-shifting liquid. We thought about liquid and its unique ability to flow and take any organic form. That led us to ask, what if we could harness this powerful trait, inside a flexible but solid material?

This kind of combination could offer changes in form and weight distribution, which would be useless unless the material can be solidified and then turn to liquid again. The use of this kind of liquid material could offer dynamic design abilities and new digitally-enabled physical products. To use an example mentioned earlier, with a bit of hands-on interaction, a user could digitally trigger the material to become liquid or solid and therefore turn a chair into a table and into a surfboard. More importantly, this could mean that we will finally be able to let the user, computer, or environment determine the physical form and functionality of their physical worlds.

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