Mediated Matter
How digital and fabrication technologies mediate between matter and environment to radically transform the design and construction of objects, buildings, and systems.

The Mediated Matter group is dedicated to the development and application of novel processes that enable and support the design of physical matter, and its adaptability to environmental conditions in the creation of form. Our research integrates computational form-finding strategies with biologically inspired fabrication. This enables mediating synergies between objects and environment; between humans and objects; and between humans and environment. Our goal is to enhance the relation between natural and man-made environments by achieving high degrees of design customization and versatility, environmental performance integration, and material efficiency. We seek to establish new forms of design and novel processes of material practice at the intersection of computer science, material engineering, design and ecology, with broad applications across multiple scales.

Research Projects

  • 3D Printing of Functionally Graded Materials

    Neri Oxman and Steven Keating

    Functionally graded materials–materials with spatially varying composition or microstructure–are omnipresent in nature. From palm trees with radial density gradients, to the spongy trabeculae structure of bone, to the hardness gradient found in many types of beaks, graded materials offer material and structural efficiency. But in man-made structures such as concrete pillars, materials are typically volumetrically homogenous. While using homogenous materials allows for ease of production, improvements in strength, weight, and material usage can be obtained by designing with functionally graded materials. To achieve graded material objects, we are working to construct a 3D printer capable of dynamic mixing of composition material. Starting with concrete and UV-curable polymers, we aim to create structures, such as a bone-inspired beam, which have functionally graded materials. This research was sponsored by the NSF EAGER award: Bio-Beams: FGM Digital Design & Fabrication.

  • Additive Manufacturing in Glass: Electrosintering and Spark Gap Glass

    Neri Oxman, Steven Keating, John Klein

    Our initial experiments in spark electrosintering fabrication have demonstrated a capacity to solidify granular materials (35-88 micron soda ash glass powder) rapidly using high voltages and power in excess of 1 kW. The test bed high voltage setup is comprised of a 220V 60A variable autotransformer and a 14,400V line transformer. There are two methods to form members using electro-sintering: the one electrode drag (1ED) and the two electrode drag (2ED) techniques. The 1ED leaves the first electrode static while dragging the second through the granular mixture. This maintains a live current running through the drag path and increases the thickness of the member due to the dissipation of heat. Large member elements have been produced with a tube diameter of around 0.75”. The 2ED method pulls both electrodes through the granular mixture together, sintering the material between the electrodes in a more controlled manner.

  • Anthozoa

    Neri Oxman

    A 3D-printed dress was debuted during Paris Fashion Week Spring 2013 as part of collaboration with fashion designer Iris Van Herpen for her show "Voltage." The 3D-printed skirt and cape were produced using Stratasys’ unique Objet Connex multi-material 3D printing technology, which allows a variety of material properties to be printed in a single build. This allowed both hard and soft materials to be incorporated within the design, crucial to the movement and texture of the piece. Core contributers include: Iris Van Herpen, fashion designer (Amsterdam); Keren Oxman, artist and designer (NY); and W. Craig Carter (Department of Materials Science and Engineering, MIT). Fabricated by Stratasys.

  • Beast

    Neri Oxman

    Beast is an organic-like entity created synthetically by the incorporation of physical parameters into digital form-generation protocols. A single continuous surface, acting both as structure and as skin, is locally modulated for both structural support and corporeal aid. Beast combines structural, environmental, and corporeal performance by adapting its thickness, pattern density, stiffness, flexibility, and translucency to load, curvature, and skin-pressured areas respectively.

  • Bots of Babel

    Neri Oxman, Jorge Duro-Royo, Markus Kayser, Jared Laucks and Laia Mogas-Soldevila

    The Biblical story of the Tower of Babel involved a deliberate plan hatched by mankind to construct a platform from which man could fight God. The tower represented the first documented attempt at constructing a vertical city. The divine response to the master plan was to sever communication by instilling a different language in each builder. Tragically, the building’s ultimate destruction came about through the breakdown of communications between its fabricators. In this installation we redeem the Tower of Babel by creating its antithesis. We will construct a virtuous, decentralized, yet highly communicative building environment of cable-suspended fabrication bots that together build structures bigger than themselves. We explore themes of asynchronous motion, multi-nodal fabrication, lightweight additive manufacturing, and the emergence of form through fabrication. (With contributions from Carlos Gonzalez Uribe and Dr. James Weaver (WYSS Institute and Harvard University))

  • Building-Scale 3D Printing

    Neri Oxman, Steven Keating and John Klein

    How can additive fabrication technologies be scaled to building-sized construction? We introduce a novel method of mobile swarm printing that allows small robotic agents to construct large structures. The robotic agents extrude a fast-curing material which doubles as both a concrete mold for structural walls and as a thermal insulation layer. This technique offers many benefits over traditional construction methods, such as speed, custom geometry, and cost. As well, direct integration of building utilities like wiring and plumbing can be incorporated into the printing process. This research was sponsored by the NSF EAGER award: Bio-Beams: FGM Digital Design & Fabrication.

  • Carpal Skin

    Neri Oxman

    Carpal Skin is a prototype for a protective glove to protect against Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, a medical condition in which the median nerve is compressed at the wrist, leading to numbness, muscle atrophy, and weakness in the hand. Night-time wrist splinting is the recommended treatment for most patients before going into carpal tunnel release surgery. Carpal Skin is a process by which to map the pain-profile of a particular patient—its intensity and duration—and to distribute hard and soft materials to fit the patient’s anatomical and physiological requirements, limiting movement in a customized fashion. The form-generation process is inspired by animal coating patterns in the control of stiffness variation.

  • CNSILK: Computer Numerically Controlled Silk Cocoon Construction

    Neri Oxman

    CNSILK explores the design and fabrication potential of silk fibers—inspired by silkworm cocoons—for the construction of woven habitats. It explores a novel approach to the design and fabrication of silk-based building skins by controlling the mechanical and physical properties of spatial structures inherent in their microstructures using multi-axis fabrication. The method offers construction without assembly such that material properties vary locally to accommodate for structural and environmental requirements. This approach stands in contrast to functional assemblies and kinetically actuated facades which require a great deal of energy to operate, and are typically maintained by global control. Such material architectures could simultaneously bear structural load, change their transparency so as to control light levels within a spatial compartment (building or vehicle), and open and close embedded pores so as to ventilate a space.

  • Digital Construction Platform

    Altec, BASF, Neri Oxman, Steven Keating, John Klein and Nathan Spielberg

    The DCP is an in-progress research project consisting of a compound robotic arm system. The system comprises a 5-axis Altec hydraulic mobile boom arm attached to a 6-axis KUKA robotic arm. Akin to the biological model of human shoulder and hand, this compound system utilizes the large boom arm for gross positioning and the small robotic arm for fine positioning and oscillation correction, respectively. The platform is based on a fully mobile truck vehicle with a working reach diameter of over 80 feet. It can handle a 1,500-lb lift capacity and a 20-lb manipulation capacity. Potential applications include fabrication of non-standard architectural forms, integration of real-time on-site sensing data, improvements in construction efficiency, enhanced resolution, lower error rates, and increased safety.

  • Digitally Reconfigurable Surface

    Neri Oxman and Benjamin Peters

    The digitally reconfigurable surface is a pin matrix apparatus for directly creating rigid 3D surfaces from a computer-aided design (CAD) input. A digital design is uploaded into the device, and a grid of thousands of tiny pins—much like the popular pin-art toy—are actuated to form the desired surface. A rubber sheet is held by vacuum pressure onto the tops of the pins to smooth out the surface they form; this strong surface can then be used for industrial forming operations, simple resin casting, and many other applications. The novel phase-changing electronic clutch array allows the device to have independent position control over thousands of discrete pins with only a single motorized "push plate," lowering the complexity and manufacturing cost of this type of device. Research is ongoing into new actuation techniques to further lower the cost and increase the surface resolution of this technology.

  • FABRICOLOGY: Variable-Property 3D Printing as a Case for Sustainable Fabrication

    Neri Oxman
    Rapid prototyping technologies speed product design by facilitating visualization and testing of prototypes. However, such machines are limited to using one material at a time; even high-end 3D printers, which accommodate the deposition of multiple materials, must do so discretely and not in mixtures. This project aims to build a proof-of-concept of a 3D printer able to dynamically mix and vary the ratios of different materials in order to produce a continuous gradient of material properties with real-time correspondence to structural and environmental constraints.
  • FitSocket: A Better Way to Make Sockets

    Arthur Petron, Hugh Herr, Roy Kornbluh (SRI), and Neri Oxman

    Sockets–the cup-shaped devices that attach an amputated limb to a lower-limb prosthesis–are made through unscientific, artisanal methods that do not have repeatable quality and comfort from one individual with amputation to the next. The FitSocket project aims to identify the correlation between leg tissue properties and the design of a comfortable socket. The FitSocket is a robotic socket measurement device that directly measures tissue properties. With this data, we can rapid-prototype test sockets and socket molds in order to make rigid, spatially variable stiffness, and spatially/temporally variable stiffness sockets.

  • Functionally Graded Filament-Wound Carbon-Fiber Prosthetic Sockets

    Neri Oxman, Carlos Gonzalez Uribe and Hugh Herr and the Biomechatronics group

    Prosthetic Sockets belong to a family of orthoic devices designed for amputee rehabilitation and performance augmentation. Although such products are fabricated out of lightweight composite materials and designed for optimal shape and size, they are limited in their capacity to offer local control of material properties for optimizing load distribution and ergonomic fit over surface and volume areas. Our research offers a novel workflow to enable the digital design and fabrication of customized prosthetic sockets with variable impedance informed by MRI data. We implement parametric environments to enable the controlled distribution of functional gradients of a filament-wound carbon fiber socket.

  • Lichtenberg 3D Printing

    Neri Oxman and Steven Keating

    Using electricity to generate 3D Lichtenberg structures in sintered media (i.e. glass) offers a new approach to digital fabrication. By robotically controlling the electrodes, a digital form can be rapidly fabricated with the benefits of a fine fractal structure. There are numerous applications, ranging from chemical catalysts, to fractal antennas, to product design.

  • Meta-Mesh: Computational Model for Design and Fabrication of Biomimetic Scaled Body Armors

    Neri Oxman, Jorge Duro-Royo, and Laia Mogas-Soldevila

    A collaboration between Professor Christine Ortiz (project lead), Professor Mary C. Boyce, Katia Zolotovsky, and Swati Varshaney (MIT). Operating at the intersection of biomimetic design and additive manufacturing, this research proposes a computational approach for designing multifunctional scaled-armors that offer structural protection and flexibility in movement. Inspired by the segmented exoskeleton of Polypterus senegalus, an ancient fish, we have developed a hierarchical computational model that emulates structure-function relationships found in the biological exoskeleton. Our research provides a methodology for the generation of biomimetic protective surfaces using segmented, articulated components that maintain user mobility alongside full body coverage of doubly curved surfaces typical of the human body. The research is supported by the MIT Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies, the Institute for Collaborative Biotechnologies, and the National Security Science and Engineering Faculty Fellowship Program.

  • Micro-Macro Fluidic Fabrication of a Mid-Sole Running Shoe

    Neri Oxman and Carlos Gonzalez Uribe

    Micro-macro Fluidic Fabrication (MMFF) enables the control of mechanical properties through the design of non-linear lattices embedded within multi-material matrices. At its core it is a hybrid technique that integrates molding, casting, and macro-fluidics. Its workflow allows for the fabrication of complex matrices with geometrical channels injected with polymers of different pre-set mechanical combinations. This novel fabrication technique is implemented in the design and fabrication of a midsole running shoe. The goal is to passively tune material stiffness across surface area in order to absorb the impact force of the user’s body weight relative to the ground, and enhance the direction of the foot-strike impulse force relative to the center of body mass.

  • Monocoque

    Neri Oxman

    French for "single shell," Monocoque stands for a construction technique that supports structural load using an object's external skin. Contrary to the traditional design of building skins that distinguish between internal structural frameworks and non-bearing skin elements, this approach promotes heterogeneity and differentiation of material properties. The project demonstrates the notion of a structural skin using a Voronoi pattern, the density of which corresponds to multi-scalar loading conditions. The distribution of shear-stress lines and surface pressure is embodied in the allocation and relative thickness of the vein-like elements built into the skin. Its innovative 3D printing technology provides for the ability to print parts and assemblies made of multiple materials within a single build, as well as to create composite materials that present preset combinations of mechanical properties.

  • PCB Origami

    Neri Oxman and Yoav Sterman

    The PCB Origami project is an innovative concept for printing digital materials and creating 3D objects with Rigid-flex PCBs and pick and place machines. These machines allow printing of digital electronic materials, while controlling the location and property of each of the components printed. By combining this technology with Rigid-flex PCB and computational origami, it is possible to create from a single sheet of PCB almost any 3D shape that is already embedded with electronics, to produce a finished product with that will be both structural and functional.

  • Printing Living Materials

    Neri Oxman, Steven Keating, Will Patrick and Professor Tim Lu (RLE) and Professor Ron Weiss (CSAIL)

    How can biological organisms be incorporated into product, fashion, and architectural design to enable the generation of multi-functional, responsive, and potentially adaptable objects? This research pursues the intersection of synthetic biology, digital fabrication, and design. Our goal is to incorporate engineered biological organisms into inorganic and organic materials to vary material properties in space and time. We aim to use synthetic biology to engineer organisms with varied output functionalities and digital fabrication tools to spatially pattern these organisms and induce their gene expression.

  • Printing Multi-Material 3D Microfluidics

    Neri Oxman, Steven Keating, Will Patrick and David Sun Kong (MIT Lincoln Laboratory)

    Computation and fabrication in biology occurs in aqueous environments. Through on-chip mixing, analysis, and fabrication, microfluidic chips have introduced new possibilities in biology for over two decades. Existing construction processes for microfluidics use complex, cumbersome, and expensive lithography methods that produce single-material, multi-layered 2D chips. Multi-material 3D printing presents a promising alternative to existing methods that would allow microfluidics to be fabricated in a single step with functionally graded material properties. We aim to create multi-material microfluidic devices using additive manufacturing to replicate current devices, such as valves and ring mixers, and to explore new possibilities enabled by 3D geometries and functionally graded materials. Applications range from medicine to genetic engineering to product design.

  • Rapid Craft

    Neri Oxman

    The values endorsed by vernacular architecture have traditionally promoted designs constructed and informed by and for the environment while using local knowledge and indigenous materials. Under the imperatives and growing recognition of sustainable design, Rapid Craft seeks integration between local construction techniques and globally available digital design technologies to preserve, revive, and reshape these cultural traditions.

  • Raycounting

    Neri Oxman

    Raycounting is a method for generating customized light-shading constructions by registering the intensity and orientation of light rays within a given environment. 3D surfaces of double curvature are the result of assigning light parameters to flat planes. The algorithm calculates the intensity, position, and direction of one or multiple light sources placed in a given environment and assigns local curvature values to each point in space corresponding to the reference plane and the light dimension. Light performance analysis tools are reconstructed programmatically to allow for morphological synthesis based on intensity, frequency, and polarization of light parameters as defined by the user.

  • Silk Pavilion

    Neri Oxman, Jorge Duro-Royo, Carlos Gonzalez, Markus Kayser, and Jared Laucks, with James Weaver (Wyss Institute, Harvard University) and Fiorenzo Omenetto (Tufts University)

    The Silk Pavilion explores the relationship between digital and biological fabrication. The primary structure was created from 26 polygonal panels made of silk threads laid down by a CNC (Computer-Numerically Controlled) machine. Inspired by the silkworm’s ability to generate a 3D cocoon out of a single multi-property silk thread, the pavilion's overall geometry was created using an algorithm that assigns a single continuous thread across patches, providing various degrees of density. Overall density variation was informed by deploying the silkworm as a biological "printer" in the creation of a secondary structure. Positioned at the bottom rim of the scaffold, 6,500 silkworms spun flat, non-woven silk patches as they locally reinforced the gaps across CNC-deposited silk fibers. Affected by spatial and environmental conditions (geometrical density, variation in natural light and heat), the silkworms were found to migrate to darker and denser areas.

  • SpiderBot

    Neri Oxman and Benjamin Peters

    The SpiderBot is a suspended robotic gantry system that provides an easily deployable platform from which to print large structures. The body is composed of a deposition nozzle, a reservoir of material, and parallel linear actuators. The robot is connected to stable points high in the environment, such as large trees or buildings. This arrangement is capable of moving large distances without the need for more conventional linear guides, much like a spider does. The system is easy to set up for mobile projects, and will afford sufficient printing resolution and build volume. Expanding foam can be deposited to create a building-scale printed object rapidly. Another material type of interest is the extrusion or spinning of tension elements, like rope or cable. With tension elements, unique structures such as bridges or webs can be wrapped, woven, or strung around environmental features or previously printed materials.