Octopus: A delicious inspiration for chefs and engineers alike.
For the latter, it’s been the source for research on everything from programmable dynamic color camouflages and robotic arm tentacles to underwater adhesive materials. Now, scientists at Cornell University have invented a new stretchable material that changes its shape using programmable membranes, just like the 3D-morphing skin of our eight-armed friends.
Octopus and other cephalopods’ skins have muscular papillae that can shape-shift in one-fifth of a second, immediately adopting the topography of whatever surface the animal is resting on. Combined with their ability to change color, they can basically make themselves invisible:
Because of its obvious relevance for stealth combat, the U.S. Army Research Office funded a project to develop 3D shape-shifting suits for soldiers based on the same principle. The material uses pneumatically-activated cells that can be programmed to morph into a 3D form at any given time. Here is one example of how the material can mimic a succulent plant:
Talking to Motherboard, lead researcher James Pikul compared the membranes in the skin to pixels on a screen: “By having these multiple pixels of texture, and being able to turn them on and off from zero to 100 percent, that allows them to camouflage in a large diversity of environment. And that’s what we can do, we can mimic that exactly.” Their 2D material can stretch and grow into a range of 3D surfaces by dynamically raising or lowering these surface points. This is similar to the way a video game turns flat polygons into 3D topographies using grayscale images that defines the height of each point on the flat surface–something called a “bump map.” Except this material can make that happen in the physical world.
I can imagine that engineers will eventually combine this technology with color-shifting pigments to pretty much turn soldiers invisible, just as octopus and cuttlefish do. But what excites me more than bringing a shape-shifting cephalopod suit to my next Halloween party is how this technology could change everyday objects–things like a car dashboard that can grow buttons or a joystick, a seat that dynamically adapts to the shape of your body for maximum comfort, or a flat information point surface that transforms itself into a three-dimensional map showing a trail. Even, perhaps, a kitchen counter that grows a container to hold chopped onions for a yummy octopus stew.