Claytronics - Synthetic Reality?

Posted 10 Jun 2005 at 14:07 UTC by The Swirling Brain Share This

I read an amazing article about how scientists unveil 'clay' robots that will shape our world! This new technology from Carnegie Mellon University called Claytronics promises that we can carry around a lump of this stuff in our pockets that can reshape itself into any object and can even act like 3D TV and create synthetic reality! That is fantastically amazing and totally unbelievable I thought to myself! So I went to their website to take a look and saw a couple of disappointing two-inch robots clicking via electromagnets and a few videos (must watch). Ok, so then I read on to find that such a lump of this cool clay stuff won't be available for years. Now it is a cool thing to see a couple of half dollar sized gizmos connect via electromagnet points (no latching points, no inter-robot-communication, no lifting ability, no cpu resources that I could see) but really, Scientists have created Synthetic Reality with this stuff? This is just too good to be true!

Ok so call me sceptical, but methinks someone broke the knob on the hype engine. I'm giving it to you straight: it's years and years away this nano clay that they just revealed! Actually, I don't think it can ever be created as conceptualized here because there's no latching mechanism, and electromagnets can't hold up that much weight without gobs and gobs of power. Or maybe I'm really, really missing something? Yall help me out here! I really like the cool buzz name "Claytronics," though!

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Benjamin D. Rister of CMU Sent in a Reply! ..., posted 13 Jun 2005 at 17:27 UTC by The Swirling Brain » (Master)

Here's some emails between Benjamin D. Rister of CMU and myself...

======= Benjamin D. Rister's First Message... =======

Hi Jim,

Your note ( ticle/1530.html) showed up on my Google alert today, and I thought that as one of the people who started the project in the first place a quick note might help. The article you linked, in typical science reporting fashion, isn't either thorough or particularly accurate. Yes, it's certainly years and years away, but that's one thing the article did get right--they do have a quote from Jason in there on that.

I think your confusion probably comes from the fact that we're really doing something very different from the status quo, and a lot of the things you are skeptical about are things that we've made very conscious design choices about in order to achieve scalability, manufacturability, and in some cases just working in the first place. For instance, if you look at even the state of the art in research regarding latching mechanisms for modular robotics, it's glacially slow, and is usually cheated anyway (if you watch videos, there's usually cuts in there where somebody either manually connects something by hand or skips over the 5 minute latching process). These things need to move somewhat faster than that if they're going to animate a person. =) Also, as another example, electromagnetics are just a stopgap for these early prototypes--the technology scales with the catoms. The next step as we scale down is probably electrostatics, and we'll go from there.

Also, as a factual FYI, each of these things does have CPU resources and communication capability, even on the prototypes. Communication is the cornerstone of what's going to make Claytronics work! The hardware just gets easier as the years go by, but the truly difficult question is the control and collaboration between the catoms.

Anyway, just doing my part here to help the PR for the project. =) It's a way out, but every indication so far is positive, and the world-changing aspects of it have all of us very excited. We're just a couple of years old now, and are just starting to start the publication machine going, so keep an eye on the robotics conferences for all of the gruesome details. I think we have a power routing paper in the upcoming IROS...

Benjamin D. Rister
Computer Science Department
Carnegie Mellon University

======= The Swirling Brain writes... =======

Thanks for the great information and the followup. I really do appreciate you emailing me about this. May I post your email below under the article so that all may get to read and benefit from this additional report?

Jim Brown

======= Benjamin D. Rister writes... =======

Sure, no problem, and of course I'm happy to answer any questions if they arise. We're all very excited about Claytronics here, and it's nice that word is starting to get outside of the academic circles about it, even if it does get diluted through various reporters.

Benjamin D. Rister
Computer Science Department
Carnegie Mellon University

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