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Shape-shifting robot swarms will create 3D replicas

Clinging mini robots will assume any shape -- humans, furniture or game characters

January 31, 2008 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - By 2020, instead of calling your boss and discussing a new project over the phone, a three-dimensional facsimile of him simply will sit in your office and have a discussion with you.

Want to play your favorite video game? Instead of watching characters move around on a computer monitor, why not let them run around your house?

This is the vision of the future for Seth Goldstein, an associate professor at Carnegie Mellon University. For the past four years, Goldstein and a team of researchers from CMU, Intel Corp., and the U.S. Air Force Research Lab have been working to create swarms of tiny robots that can be manipulated with electromagnetic forces to create various forms. He explained that the miniscule robots, which one day should be about the size of a grain of sand, basically are shape shifters -clinging together to form various 3D creations.

"The research path from here to having millions of these working together to form a 3D replica of you in my office is going to be a long and circuitous route," Goldstein told Computerworld. "It's programmable matter. We want them to shift shape. As you're moving your hand in your actual office, your 3D replica has to move its hand, too. It's not just a picture. The idea is to bring physicality into reality."

Goldstein calls the programmable matter claytronics and the tiny robots catoms. And it's not all out of a sci-fi movie. Goldstein said. Working hand-in-hand with Intel Corp., the research team has made a lot of progress in getting the catoms to bond together and even share power. Video  

Think of each catom as a tiny robot or computer that has computational power, memory and the ability to store and share power. Right now, each catom has 24 electromagnets around its circumference. Based on whether the electromagnets are powered on or off decides how the catoms are moved into position with each other. The robots will harness these forces to achieve their goals.

"They talk to each other all the time and move together or apart," explained Goldstein. "In the long term, we'll use electrostatic forces. We'll create it by putting a voltage on them."

When will these shape-shifting robots leave the lab and enter our lives? It's difficult to put an exact timeline on it, but Goldstein said he expects to see them functioning in the real world within five to 25 years.

"It will have a massive change on the way we do everything," he added. "You'll essentially be able to sit in the same room with somebody who's not there… The 3D model would pick up the voice and a real-time image of the person its replicating over the Internet. It's not so far fetched. MP3s and movies are all encoded strings of bits today. Instead of having speakers and microphones, we'll have claytronics."

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