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MIT’s Inflatables Are The Bubble Wrap Of The Future

Aeromorphs, a new way to design inflatable materials, could also change the way we build furniture and design fashion.

Robotics aren’t the only way to design objects that transform: Just look at a balloon, the airbag in your car, or one of those crazy Lamzacs. Filling something with air is a useful way of transforming an object–provided you can do so precisely.

That’s just what students at MIT’s Tangible Media Group have done with Aeromorphs, a new technology that creates origami-like inflatables that can transform in unique ways when filled with air, opening the door to new kind of toys, wearables, packaging methods, safety systems, and more.

With Aeromorphs, PhD student Jifei Ou and the rest of his team at the Tangible Media Group have created, essentially, a way of programming papers, plastics, and fabrics. Designing an Aeromorph starts with a custom software tool that lets you create a pattern based on the inflated shape you’re trying to achieve. This design is then exported as a file so that it can be manufactured on a standard CNC prototyping machine fit with a custom heat-sealing head, which creates the necessary pockets of air across the material a bit like a sewing machine makes stitches. When inflated pneumatically, the fabric or material deforms into a predictable shape, as dictated by the team’s software.

Aeromorphs come from the same team that created Biologic, a synthetic bioskin (and 2016 IBD winner) that regulates the wearer’s heat and sweat by opening and closing flaps in the material as needed. Similarly, Ou tells me he imagines that Aeromorphs will have big applications in fashion: For example, he mentions flat-pack sneakers that can be pumped full of air to be worn, like a futuristic Reebok Pump, or a backpack that could change its shape and size depending on the content inside.

Outside of fashion, though, Aeromorphs have plenty of technical potential. From a practical perspective, packaging could be revolutionized by Aeromorphs, for the simple reason that the industry could design light, thin airbags that easily wrap around a product to protect it when inflated, further streamlining the shipping process in factories. Similarly, it’s easy to see how this sort of approach could be used by automakers to create a new generation of safer airbags.

But you could just as easily use Aeromorphs to design soft teddy bears that hug kids back, interesting new types of flat-pack inflatable furniture, and more. Aeromorphs aren’t so much a product in themselves as an innovative new technique for creating soft, transformable objects. We can’t wait to see what designers do with it.

[Photos: Tangible Media Group/MIT Media Lab]

About the author

John Brownlee is a design writer who lives in Somerville, Massachusetts. You can email him at john.brownlee+fastco@gmail.com.