Imagine owning only one shirt. When it's cold out, it contracts to get thicker and keep the warmth in. In the summer it unfurls, letting the breeze in through adaptive holes. That's just one possible application of a new metamaterial called an "active auxetic" in development at the Massachussetts Institute of Technology's Self-Assembly Lab.
Auxetics are designed to grow and shrink at the same rate on along x and y axes. If you played with one of those expanding Hoberman Sphere toys as a child, then you're already familiar with the concept. The Self-Assembly Lab's innovation is different in that it requires no motors or human interaction of any kind. It actively responds to outside stimulus like temperature, and can be "programmed" to react in useful ways.
The Self-Assembly Lab's programmable materials have straddled the boundary between art, design, and science for years. He and fellow researchers have used "4D-printed" textiles adapts to pre-conceived situations (the fourth dimension is time) to make shoes. They've created sculptures inspired by virus molecules that assemble themselves inside the active environment of a lotto ball tumbler. In 2015 they applied the concept to a chair that builds itself and a brutalist obelisk made from "reversible concrete."
Active auxetics offer a lot of potential to fashion designers and artists interested in pushing the envelope. "There's a legacy of active materials in fashion," Self-Assembly Lab co-director and founder Skylar TIbbits tells The Creators Project. "You can look at Hussein Chalayan, Issey Miyake, or Suzanne Lee where there are new materials that grow, transform, adapt, fold, self-fold. This would fit well within that. But there's also high-performance clothing. […] Smarter garments tend to be wearable devices and textiles that have electronics and sensors and batteries and motors. But I think this points toward a more material version of smart garments."
Programmable materials are in their infancy, but active auxetics are the Self-Assembly Lab's next step toward making leather body suits in sci-fi flicks obselete.
Learn more about the Self-Assembly Lab here.