Claytronics is a form a programmable matter that takes the concept of modular robots to a new extreme. The concept of modular robots has been around for some time. (See  for a survey.) Previous approaches to modular robotics sought to create an ensemble of tens or even hundreds of small autonomous robots which could, through coordination, achieve a global effect not possible by any single unit. In general the goal of these projects was to adapt to the environment to facilitate, for example, improved locomotion. Our work on claytronics departs from previous work in several important ways. One of the primary goals of claytronics is to form the basis for a new media type, pario. Pario, a logical extension of audio and video, is a media type used to reproduce moving 3D objects in the real world. A direct result of our goal is that claytronics must scale to millions of micron-scale units. Having scaling (both in number and size) as a primary design goal impacts the work significantly.
The long term goal of our work is to render physical artifacts with such high fidelity that our senses will easily accept the reproduction for the original. When this goal is achieved we will be able to create an environment, which we call synthetic reality, in which a user can interact with computer generated artifacts as if they were the real thing. Synthetic reality has significant advantages over virtual reality or augmented reality. For example, there is no need for the user to use any form of sensory augmentation, e.g., head mounted displays or haptic feedback devices will be able to see, touch, pick-up, or even use the rendered artifacts.
Claytronics is our name for an instance of programmable matter whose primary function is to organize itself into the shape of an object and render its outer surface to match the visual appearance of that object. Claytronics is made up of individual components, called catoms—for Claytronic atoms—that can move in three...
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