Programmable matter is just what it sounds like-matter that can be programmed or instructed to reconfigure itself into a variety of shapes and tools, depending on the needs of the user. The term was coined in the early 1990s to refer to fine grained computing elements arranged in space that only communicate with nearest neighbor interaction. Around this same time, work was being done on reconfigurable robotics that worked similarly to the computational method. Via semantic drift, the term came to mean matter that can be programmed to change its properties in reality instead of just in simulation.
The topic has been addressed by a variety of universities and institutions over the years, including but not limited to Carnegie Mellon, DARPA, and Harvard. While some schools of thought would consider liquid crystal displays a form of programmable matter, what we’re addressing here is the more ambitious ‘claytronics’ or ‘utility fog’, micro-nanoscale robotics that can recreate a physical structure.
A clip from the Discovery Channel on the subject:
An overview at claytronics at CMU:
On a grant from DARPA, scientists developed a ‘chain’ type of programmable matter that emulates protein folding techniques, called a ‘milli-motein’. The milli-motein is made of a series of <1 cm^3 motors that can coil themselves into a variety of shapes-researchers had to develop an entirely new motor type to support the technology. Moving forward, they hope to increase the power/weight ratio with lighter and more optimized schematics.
Another MIT research program yielded a modular cubic robot with motion provided by gyroscopes-the spinning motion is transferred to the cube to move it in the structure. Currently controlled by an outside system, researchers hope to upgrade it by making each cube smaller, and keep the computation self contained.
While they haven’t released hardware videos this year, CMU’s Claytronics lab (the oldest of its type) released a new paper this year as well, ‘Distributed and Efficient Algorithm for Self-reconfiguration of MEMS Microrobots’. If you have university journal access, the paper can be found here.