When MIT Media Lab founder Nicholas Negroponte wrote Being Digital (Knopf, 1995) two decades ago, he predicted that virtual tools and environments would increasingly supplant material ones. The eventual de-materialization of technology would seem to be an inevitable outcome in an information-rich society: “It is almost genetic in its nature,” he wrote, “in that each generation will become more digital than the preceding one.” This vision suggests that the digital and material realms are vying for dominance, but in reality they are becoming more interconnected. After all, information depends on the material world for its preservation and communication. As computer scientists Paul Dourish and Melissa Mazmanian stated in their 2011 working paper on novel material media: “The information that undergirds the ‘information society’ is encountered only ever in material form.”
The emerging Internet of Things—a growing global network of connected physical objects—reinforces interdependence between the digital and material spheres. So, too, does the MIT Media Lab’s Tangible Media Group through compelling experiments with what it calls tangible bits and radical atoms. This merger between information and materials is influencing design and construction, evidenced by the proliferation of interactive surfaces, digitally fabricated products, networked supply chains, and smart material systems. Such impactful transformation of inert physical materials into connected, information-rich, and increasingly lifelike objects welcomes a new designator. I dub such objects “x-matter,” which is short for extended or expanded matter.
The impetus to create x-matter is based on the enhanced capabilities that such objects enable. These abilities fall into six categories: tracking, diagnosis, response, interaction, fabrication, and self-organization. As the following examples illustrate, these enhancements provide materials with novel characteristics that are initiating important changes within the construction industry:
Tracking refers to the means of locating and identifying materials. For example, radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology, which involves the wireless transmission of encoded data, is increasingly used to track both objects and animals. RFID readers scan passive or active tags affixed to products, analyze the associated data, and respond if necessary—such as a door lock opening in the presence of an electronic key.
Diagnosis refers to matter that monitors and communicates. One purpose of diagnosis is to determine the state of a product’s or system’s internal conditions, such as a smart paint developed by scientists at the University of Strathclyde, in Scotland, to detect and report physical flaws in steel structures before they become catastrophic. Another goal is to monitor external circumstances, which University of Tokyo researchers achieved with the creation of a light-sensitive concrete with embedded optical fibers to detect ambient light and shadows from approaching humans.
Response refers to materials that can not only sense changing conditions but also react to them. For example, self-healing polymers created by scientists at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign release a stored healing agent into small fissures as soon as they appear and before they become widespread in the material. Another example is Dow Corning’s Active Protection System, a textile that is soft and supple under normal use but becomes rigid when struck by a high-impact force. Both technologies suggest enhanced resilience and security for future products.
Interaction refers to the real-time response triggered by users’ proximity or direct contact. The Mnemosyne, developed by design studio Null Ohm, in Norway, is an illuminated architectural surface that transforms to mimic nearby movement and is intended to provide light for additional security in pedestrian tunnels and other low-visibility environments. New York–based artist Daniel Rozin’s 1999 Wooden Mirror surface (shown in the video above) is composed of wood tiles that rotate in real-time to depict a mirror image of their surrounding context—an illustration of how simple materials can be used to effect immediate, sophisticated responses.
Fabrication refers to
matter that empowers craft, as in products that either facilitate or derive
from computer-automated design and manufacturing. Examples include lightweight
composite panels like that of Ableflex’s BL
Special, which are designed to produce optimal results when cut or scored
with a laser cutter, as well as the 2012 Stone Spray technique (shown in the video below) by
Barcelona-based designers Petr Novikov, Anna Kulik, and Inder Shergill to
generate structural forms using a computer-driven, soil-based spray-deposition
Finally, self-organization refers to the autonomous material processes of self-assembly and self-replication. At the Adaptive Architectures and Smart Materials Conference hosted by Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design in Chicago prior to the opening of the Chicago Architecture Biennial earlier this month, MIT’s Self-Assembly Lab director Skylar Tibbits described self-assembly as the process by which “disordered parts build an ordered structure through local interaction.” (See his 2013 TED talk below on the topic below.) This approach is exemplified by Tibbits’ 4D-printing research, in which he 3D prints components that respond autonomously to changing environmental conditions over time. At a smaller scale, it is also seen in BacillaFilla—a genetically modified microbe engineered by researchers at Newcastle University, in the United Kingdom, to repair cracks in concrete.
Collectively, these capabilities signify the intensifying union between the information revolution of the late-20th century and the materials revolution of the early 21st century. This convergence brings both opportunity and concern for design and construction. On the positive side, enhanced tracking allows for a more robust and accurate understanding of material supply chains, enabling manufacturers to improve their products’ environmental performance. Communications-augmented technologies also extend control over the physical environment in new ways, allowing owners to remotely manipulate systems such as building access, HVAC, and lighting.
Interactive surfaces and environments also bring new responsive capabilities to architecture, enabling users to receive feedback regarding important information that may otherwise be difficult to detect, such as changing air quality or impending structural failures. Potential negatives resulting from the development of a physical-world Web include increased public and private surveillance. Similarly, the ability to monitor and control distant objects via teleoperation and telepresence could create new opportunities for subterfuge, inviting hackers and criminals to manipulate the physical environment in unprecedented ways. Meanwhile, the growing digital divide between those with easy access to technology and those without it will bring a concomitant schism in the types of material technologies available to various global communities.
For architects, the x-matter phenomenon presages fundamental changes in how architecture is taught and practiced. Students and practitioners will increasingly require more sophisticated knowledge of information-based methods and applications. According to science-fiction author Bruce Sterling in his object history Shaping Things (The MIT Press, 2005), the combination of a mere six tools—RFID, GPS, search, CADD, 3D printing, and Cradle to Cradle—will allow any material object to be tracked throughout its life. Additionally new technical methods are accompanied by novel conceptual approaches for imbuing materials with meaning. “A material is perceived according to a code—a social code. And so we can manipulate the code itself," explained Japanese architect Jun Aoki in an interview for my text Matter in the Floating World (Princeton Architectural Press, 2011). As we gain a deeper understanding of how materiality connects with material consciousness, we can imagine a transformed role of the architect: not as a mere manipulator of form, but as an orchestrator of information.