Innovation Watch: The exciting potential of smart material

Back at SXSW we saw something striking at the Bose Virtual Cinema. A sculpture that appeared to shift and move in a way that didn’t seem possible. Problem was, it was stuck in virtual reality, where seeing the impossible isn’t all that surprising.

It did start the cogs in our head turning. Imagine an object that can change its properties and shape. From rigid to flexible, from circle to square, anything could shift at a moment’s notice. It’s exactly what engineers at Rutgers University-New Brunswick have created using a technique called 4D printing.

4D printing is similar to 3D printing but uses special materials and complex designs to produce objects that can change shape when exposed to a trigger, such as temperature.

The researchers see the tech as being used in things like collapsible equipment, or in components that need to change shape to improve performance. Medical applications could see tiny devices made temporarily flexible to insert into patients to decrease their invasiveness.

The concept is outlined in detail in this video:

What the researchers don’t talk about is its amazing potential for marketing. Picture being at an event where any aspect of a stand could shift in front of your eyes. Models could change shape to demonstrate mechanical features and displays could be given a tactile element that’s impossible on screen. It could also be exciting for interactive elements: imagine a blank cube that reveals details to enter a prize draw once visitors complete a challenge.

Even things as innocuous as signage at expos could be enhanced. A sculpture of a company’s logo could shift into an arrow that points towards the direction of their stand.

We’re sure there are hundreds of other applications for this material. We hope it is something that becomes easy and cheap enough to include in our activations in the future.