MIT Researcher Develops “Illusory Material” and Lenticular 3D Printing Platform


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An award-winning product and industrial designer, Jiani Zeng, has focused her work and research in creating tangible, responsive, consumer experiences through design that combines elements from the physical and digital world. Her work explores the new design thinking and material possibilities enabled by emerging technologies such as AI, IoT, multi-material 3D Printing.

Her latest work ‘Optical Textiles’ won the 2020 Red Dot: Best of the Best, selected from 4170 entries from 52 countries. The work is based on her research into lenticular 3D printing technology, where she introduced the concept of ‘Illusory Material‘, that demonstrated how future designers may not depend on chemical plants alone for color creation, but may use her approach, with 3D printed lenses and simple color blocks, to create hues, textures and refractivity that can change with time or with different viewing angles.

While lenticular printing is not a new concept, its use has been limited to two dimensions to create 3D display effects on a flat surface. It creates an animation or motion effect or can be used to design hidden messages or images that can properly be seen only at certain viewing angles, used often in novelty cards, toys, magnets, display pieces and more. With support from MIT Media Lab and Professor Axel Killian and Professor Stefanie Mueller, Jian Zeng, Honghao Deng and Yinyi Zhu developed a lenticular 3D printing framework, a three-dimensional design methodology, for designers to control and create dynamic color and texture. Their aim is to “to push past the limitations of traditional design, removing the need to simply replicate materials that already exist, creating dream-like material expressions that only exist in the digital world.”

In a way, while smart materials have been developed before for applications in medicine or footwear, this novel approach is unique in that it seeks to bring material creation and design creation closer than ever before—using ‘impossible’ materials possible only in the digital world and that do away with the surface limitations in product or industrial design using traditional materials. As the project website states,

“Our goal is to criticize existing design methodology and experiment in both digital and physical worlds; to push past the limitations of traditional design and remove the need to simply replicate materials that already exist; to break down design medium into ‘matters’, restructuring and reinventing materiality to create unique expressions, forms, properties and experiences.”

They have developed a computational workflow to allow designers to create optical effects on any free-form surface, and then directly 3D print the physical material/object using multi-material 3D printers (researchers here used the Stratasys J8 Series). The concept 3D prints material as lenticular lenses to provide the visual effect as the top layer, and a bottom layer with colored or patterned base materials. Visual or functional Information is embedded into the material matter, at the voxel level, so that it dynamically responds to a changing environment (shifting patterns, interactive written messages, or touch-sensitive visual effects), or user intervention without the need for any electrical or robotic elements.

Image Courtesy of Illusory Materials & Core77 Awards

The voxel-printing methodology can be used by an designer familiar with CAD modeling and does not require any coding knowledge. This also enables designers to ‘play with CMF’ (Color, Materials, Finish) using new digital materials, and more importantly, include surface detail, texture, and refractivity right in the beginning of the design process to create products with dynamic, interactive features. The methodology would offer a design platform for product designers, industrial designers or architects, and manufacturers to build the next generation of physical products digitally.

To demonstrate what is possible with ‘Illusory Material’, concept products such as the Nseen (a minimalist perfume bottle with hidden essential information), Loopop (a lollipop with shifting color patterns and unique textures), Unream (a sculptural lamp), and objects made of flexible material.

Loopop, Unream, and Nseen. Image Courtesy of Illusory Materials Core77 Awards

In addition, Zeng and Deng believe ‘Illusory Materials’ will help advance design and manufacturing towards a circular economy, preventing traditional waste and significantly improving recyclability and sustainability in the lifecycle of products. As part of the Strategy & Research Award (Core 77 Design Awards 2020), the designers note

“If there is one “super material” that can mimic any material properties in the production, we might solve the big problem of material waste, recycling, distribution etc. “Illusory material” is essentially “one” material for all. The printer material (made of resin) can mimic different material properties, color mixtures, and any optical effect. Imagining the future appearance design does not rely on layers of the secondary process, but a single print with the same material; imagine one day, all materials can display by themselves without electronics, how much waste it prevent? Imagine there’s one material that mimics any material properties and can be 3D printed in any form, and can be recycled easily to become the original filament. We believe it is a near-future with multi-material 3D printing.”

Zeng is also co-founder (along with Deng) and executive director of Butlr Technologies, launched in 2019, which uses low-cost IoT devices and AI to non-intrusively track and analyse people (detecting their body heat, not individual images or video) movement indoors or outdoors. It protects individual privacy by only tracking body heat, with tremendous potential in home, retail, travel, care and hospitality environments, and is an especially pertinent solution during the pandemic that is helping retailers and museums reopen with better tools to minimize risk.

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