Ask Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) assistant professor Neri Oxman what the world will look like in 20 years, and her vision might astound many. “We’re going from an information era to a material era,” she says. “Information will be embedded in the material itself.” Clothing, walls, chairs can be alive and adapt. One Oxman design, “Beast,” is a chaise lounge made of eight materials of varying flexibility that hugs the body, responding to each movement of the user. It will be “like wearing your acupuncturist to work,” says Oxman, as chairs become flexible or provide extra support where needed. She’s designed anti-carpal-tunnel gloves with customized patterns of stiffness inspired by leopards’ spots. Her latest project: composite walls of rubber, plastic and other materials that react to structural and environmental factors, forming columns and windows in the ideal locations.
The MIT Media Lab, Cambridge, Mass., is rife with futuristic material designers. “In a hundred years,” says Oxman, “all fabrication with be bio-inspired.” Among the materials being developed in the lab are carbon nanotube walls that breathe through pores that change sizes; wallpaper covered in conductive paint that contains LED lights and Bluetooth, so walls can talk to nearby devices; and clothing that contains the wearer’s DNA, adapting as needed to changes in weight or bone density, for example. To date, Oxman’s designs have been prototypes, which she plans to have others mass-produce. “We’re not only designing form,” she says, “We’re also designing behavior, and that’s what I see as a super big deal.”