When MIT researchers Jiani Zeng and Honghao Deng came up with Illusory Material, they took inspiration from two seemingly opposite muses: the natural world and the digital world. In both mediums they recognized a depth and interactivity of color that seemed impossible to replicate in a manmade product—the way a flower petal looks soft and changes hue in different light, and likewise how computer 3D models could dynamically change colors as you shifted them in space or zoom in or out.
“If you look at current day architecture, especially for the surface material, it’s usually static and binary,” Deng says. “But nature is not static—it’s rich and dynamic. So we imagined how we could embed this kind of richness of interaction into our built environment.” The result of their research is Illusory Material, the winner of the experimental category of Fast Company’s 2020 Innovation by Design Awards.
Illusory Material uses multi-material 3D printing to create depth of color and texture in real-life objects. In the same way that digital photographs can be broken down into individual pixels, 3D objects can be broken down into voxels (a word meant to suggest volume and pixels). Illusory Material allows the designer to choose a different material for each of these voxels, layering color and texture as the printing progresses. Zeng says the aesthetic result can be used in many ways: objects that shift in color depending on how you hold them, packaging on which lettering is only viewable when held at a certain angle, sculptures that appear soft despite being printed from resin. “We can bring a dynamic and interactive material experience to our daily life and objects without using electronics or digital screens,” explains Zeng. “It can be displayed by itself.”
The project’s accomplishments are twofold: In the digital world, Deng, who’s a computational designer, had to invent software that allowed for 3D modeling on a voxel level with the ability to switch out materials, and that could effectively mock up what layers of color would look like in composite. Meanwhile Zeng, an industrial designer, took the more traditional role of dreaming up objects and applications, as well as conceptualizing what those layers of color would look like in real life. “The goal of the project is really to bring the freedom of digital design into the physical world,” Zeng says. “We can create objects that look impossible to exist in a physical world into reality.” The pair is working with Stratasys, a 3D printing company, to explore applications in high fashion, luxury packaging, and consumer products, as well as a handful of other independent designers and brands.
See more honorees from the 2020 Innovation by Design Awards here.