Humans have been bending electronics to our will for more than a century. Biology, on the other hand, has always been a little harder to tame. A new project from the MIT Media Lab’s Tangible Media Group called BioLogic is exploring how we might gain a little more control over the biological side of things.
The investigation, led by Lining Yao of MIT, focuses on how we can grow actuators that control the interfaces around us instead of manufacturing them in a factory. In other words: Yao and her team want to use the natural behavior of certain microorganisms to power objects and interfaces, the same way a motor might.
To power its inventions, BioLogic relies on Bacillus subtilis natto—a bacterium, commonly used in Japanese cooking, that reacts to atmospheric moisture. Like pinecones, these hydromorphic “natto cells” will expand and contract depending on the amount of humidity in the air—the more humidity present, the bigger the bacteria get (the size of an individual cell can change up to 50 percent). With this behavior in mind, Yao partnered with New Balance and designers from the Royal College of Art to create a new type of clothing called Second Skin that becomes more breathable as the wearer’s body heat and humidity increase.
In the video above, we see two dancers wearing tight-fitting spandex suits with built-in flaps on the back, atop the dancers’ trapezius muscles. As the dancers perspire, the triangular flaps curl up from their flat, resting state, like pieces of paper that have been sprinkled with water.
To make this transformation happen, Yao and her team turned the natto cells into a biofilm that was then printed in layers on pieces of spandex. Printing the biofilm in different patterns gives rise to different behaviors. For example, to make a piece of fabric curl up, biofilm is applied uniformly across the material; to make the fabric bend more sharply, the film is printed in lines. Yao explains that the cells react to all levels of humidity—as soon as humidity begins to rise, the flaps begin to curl. At 100 percent humidity, the flaps are completely open, allowing for maximum breathability.
Yao and the Tangible Media Group aren’t the only ones investigating this idea. MIT’s Skylar Tibbits has also been exploring the concept of “programmable matter,” albeit with synthetic materials, rather than biological ones. In both cases, the focus is on controlling the behavior of objects and interfaces with materials that are cheaper and more dynamic that traditional motors. Yao says biology, in particular, is a promising new discipline for designers to work with because of its adaptability. “With biology you can start to imagine functions that aren’t available for electronics,” she says. Living matter, unlike electronics, can grow, evolve, duplicate, divide, and die. It’s an incredibly powerful medium—if you can control it…