In 1965 Ivan Sutherland already mentioned programmable matter as the ultimate computer display:
The ultimate display would, of course, be a room within which the computer can control the existence of matter. A chair displayed in such a room would be good enough to sit in. Handcuffs displayed in such a room would be confining, and a bullet displayed in such a room would be fatal. With appropriate programming such a display could literally be the Wonderland into which Alice walked.
Several research labs have been exploring ways to implement programmable matter through nanoscale robotics. This line of research goes by many names: dynamic physical rendering, smart dust, synthetic reality, utility fog, radical atoms or programmable matter. Looking at current publications and demos, we are far from being there yet. But in a few decades, we will have physical displays that offer full control over their shape, color and other material properties. Cephalopods won't feel alone anymore.
With programmable matter, physical visualizations will be able to accomodate any data set, they will be fully dynamic and interactive, and will allow both data analysts and lay people to perform complex data exploration tasks. Plugins will be available that will let people play with several of the physical visualizations listed here, in their original physical form.
The two concept videos above show how some designers and scientists envision interaction with programmable matter in a 3D modelling context. The first one is from the Carnegie Mellon University, the second one is from the MIT Media Lab. Will programmable also be free floating, as we've seen in movies?
- Sutherland (1965) The Ultimate Display.
- Carnegie Mellon University (2004) Claytronics.
- Hiroshi Ishii et al (2012) Radical Atoms: Beyond Tangible Bits, Toward Transformable Materials.