Shapeshifting Materials Could Transform Our World Inside Out

From medicine to space travel, Chuck Hoberman’s shape-shifting is expanding scientific research.

A sneak peek at Hoberman’s latest prototype: a sphere that transforms shape, size and color by turning itself inside out.
(Credit: Yana 
This story originally appeared in the December issue of Discover magazine as “Scientist in Toyland.” Support our science journalism by becoming a subscriber.

It’s easy to pin labels on Chuck Hoberman, but hard to stick with just one. He’s an inventor, an artist, a tinkerer. He’s a designer, an engineer, a transformer. He’s a toymaker — the brains behind the colorful, expanding Hoberman sphere, which you and your kids have been playing with since the early 1990s (and which earned a place in the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection). Thematically, Hoberman’s work lands him at the intersection of art, architecture, design and playthings. Physically, he works sometimes from an airy room on the second floor of a house-turned-office-suite near Harvard Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The Cambridge office is tidy, with white walls and plenty of light. The surfaces are usually cleared, but today they’re cluttered with the material expressions of his geometric dreams: Models made of two-dimensional pieces, hinged together to form 3D structures that deform, bend or otherwise fold in prescribed ways. They are made out of whatever material Hoberman had at hand when inspiration struck — paper, precisely cut in regular polyhedra with tape linkages; folded cardboard; laser-cut plywood; hard plastic sheeting. Larger models, wrapped in paper and foam sheets, sit in big boxes on the floor. Some look like reconstructions of impossible objects from M.C. Escher-like visions.

He picks up a structure that looks like bulldozer treads but is black on the outside and orange in the interior. It has triangular sides, now it has octahedral sides, and now it’s collapsed, flat. “There are underlying geometric principles that let them move the way they do,” he says, turning the structure inside out, “and that’s my usual starting point. I work from a kind of geometric lexicon.” He always seems to be fidgeting, as though the only way to talk about shapeshifters is to stay in motion.

Hoberman is dressed in black — jacket, shirts, pants, glasses — with white hair combed straight back. His long face is both skeptical and serious. He lays a ruler on one of the tables. The models on the right side, he says, represent the past: Decades of evolved geometric ideas. These designs don’t look like toys, per se, but rather like the Platonic forms of playthings, toys reduced to their purest elements of movement, form and mathematics.

Transformation is their common denominator, and he returns to that idea because it’s so readily obvious in the world. “Basically, wherever you look, at the clouds or whatever, everything is transforming constantly and doing it in a fluid, smooth and continuous way,” he says.

He’s been obsessed with physical change since he began experimenting with pulleys and levers during his art school days in the 1970s. “I’m maniacal in being focused on this concept,” he says. His work is driven by big, roomy questions: How does one shape turn into another? The engineers who enlist his help ask that question differently: How can a device — at any scale, from origami organs up to a building — be designed so that it smoothly deforms from one thing into another? Hoberman’s expertise makes him particularly appealing to researchers interested in machine intelligence of a sort — not the kind that requires writing better algorithms, necessarily, but the kind built into the physical structure itself, an intentional motion.

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