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3D-Printed Hair Can Sense and Spark Motion

The furry structures from MIT's Tangible Media Group have surprisingly diverse applications.

Researchers at MIT Media Lab's Tangible Media Group have sprouted 3D prints of intricate hair patterns inspired by the natural world. "Lots of animals and plants have hair structures for functions like adhesion, locomotion, sensing, self-cleaning, camouflage, thermal regulation, etc.," lists Jifei Ou, the lead on the project. "On the other hand, new fabrication processes, such as 3D printing, allow us to create structures that we couldn't easily make before. So I wanted to explore how 3D printing can create those types of intricate structures, which enable surprising and dynamic material properties." The project, entitled Cilllia (cilia means eyelashes in Latin; it’s also a fuzzy-looking sensory organelle), took about eight months to complete and was recently unveiled at the CHI conference in San Jose.

A crucial step in obtaining the hair structures, which are generated at 50 micrometer resolution—which is to say 50 thousandths of a millimeter, which is to say really tiny—was bypassing the need for traditional 3D modeling in CAD software. Instead, the team created a bitmap-generating program that directly creates 3D printer readable files. “Hair structure takes an insanely long time to be processed in CAD software, due to its large quantity of surfaces, and creates a super large file that could easily crash any standard slicing program,” explains Ou. “Using the software we built for Cilllia, we directly specify hair’s geometry by arranging the voxels and directly generate bitmaps for the printer.”

Which brings us to our next question: What, exactly, are voxels? Think pixels, but in 3D. Arranging and rearranging the voxels allows you to create variations in the height, thickness, and angle of each hair. These, in turn, lend the hairy objects their unique properties, whether it’s sensing touch or setting objects into motion. For example, by attaching a vibration source underneath a bed of 3D printed hair, objects can move along a path you design, or different objects can be sorted according to weight—one moves at a certain frequency and falls off the bed of hair, while another stays put. This kind of “actuation mechanism” could be used to sort tiny pieces in a factory or pills in a pharmacy, mentions Ou.

The list of potential applications is seemingly endless. “For starters, this can be used for fashion design, to create synthetic fur for garments, or accessories with computationally controllable geometry,” cites the PhD student. In a short video presenting the project, a small windmill starts turning as soon as it senses the vibrations coming from a phone, two hairy objects latch on to one another like velcro, and a small bed of hair manages to sense the speed of your finger’s stroke. If this all seems a little too abstract, watch the video, below:

Cilllia - 3D Printed Hair Structures for Surface Texture, Actuation and Sensing from Tangible Media Group on Vimeo.

The Tangible Media Group’s vision is to marry bits and atoms—in other words, to bring digital information into the physical world. Ou’s overall vision for Cilllia is in line with this mission. “Beyond the technical invention, we hope people will be inspired by our vision of creating new materials with computationally controllable properties and behavior—and how this could change the way we design the physical world,” he concludes.

Learn more about Cilllia here. For technical details, you can leaf through the academic paper.

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