Mediated Matter
Designing for, with, and by nature.

The Mediated Matter group focuses on Nature-inspired design and design-inspired Nature. We conduct research at the intersection of computational design, digital fabrication, materials science, and synthetic biology and apply that knowledge to design across scales from the micro scale to the building scale. We create biologically inspired and engineered design fabrication tools and technologies and structures aiming to enhance the relation between natural and man-made environments. Our research area, entitled Material Ecology, integrates computational form-finding strategies with biologically inspired fabrication. This design approach enables the mediation 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, and 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 testbed high-voltage setup comprises a 220V 60A variable autotransformer and a 14,400V line transformer. There are two methods to form members using electrosintering: the one-electrode drag (1ED) and 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 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 such as 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 (DCP)

    Altec, Neri Oxman, Levi Cai, Steven Keating, John Klein, Julian Leland and Dow Chemical

    The DCP is an in-progress research project consisting of a compound robotic arm system. The system comprises a 6-axis KUKA robotic arm attached to the endpoint of a 3-axis Altec hydraulic boom arm, which is mounted on a mobile platform. Akin to the biological model of the 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. 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: Measurement for Attaching Objects to People

    Arthur Petron, Hugh Herr and Neri Oxman

    A better understanding of the biomechanics of human tissue allows for better attachment of load-bearing objects to people. Think of shoes, ski boots, car seats, orthotics, and more. We are focusing on prosthetic sockets, the cup-shaped devices that attach an amputated limb to a lower-limb prosthesis, which currently are made through unscientific, artisanal methods that do not have repeatable quality and comfort from one individual 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 these 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.

  • G3P

    Neri Oxman, Markus Kayser, John Klein, Chikara Inamura, Daniel Lizardo, Giorgia Franchin, Michael Stern, Shreya Dave, Peter Houk, MIT Glass Lab

    Digital design and construction technologies for product and building scale are generally limited in their capacity to deliver multi-functional building skins. Recent advancements in additive manufacturing and digital fabrication at large are today enabling the fabrication of multiple materials with combinations of mechanical, electrical, and optical properties; however, most of these materials are non-structural and cannot scale to architectural applications. Operating at the intersection of additive manufacturing, biology, and architectural design, the Glass Printing project is an enabling technology for optical glass 3D printing at architectural scale designed to manufacture multi-functional glass structures and facade elements. The platform deposits molten glass in a layer-by-layer (FDM) fashion, implementing numerical control of tool paths, and it allows for controlled optical variation across surface and volume areas.

  • G3P 2.0

    Chikara Inamura, Daniel Lizardo, Michael Stern, Pierre-Thomas Brun, Peter Houk, Neri Oxman

    The G3P 2.0 platform sets itself apart from traditional 3D printers, industrial glass forming devices, and its own predecessor G3P 1.0 by a fundamental restructuring of architecture and computer-aided machining (CAM) process based on the material properties of silicate glass. Glass is an extreme material. Working temperature range, viscosity, and thermal stress are sufficiently high that we must rethink the glass deposition forming process using new expertise on material behavior. The aim is to produce a platform that is less a printer, in the conventional sense, but rather, a freeform fabrication tool for glass. What results is a truly novel fabrication platform making use of a dynamic thermal and flow control system, digitally integrated with a four-axis motion system. The material fundamentally drives how the machine is used, and in return, the machine can change how glass is formed and used.

  • Gemini

    Neri Oxman with Le Laboratoire (David Edwards, Founder), Stratasys, and SITU Fabrication

    Gemini is an acoustical "twin chaise" spanning multiple scales of human existence, from the womb to the stretches of the Gemini zodiac. We are exploring interactions between pairs: sonic and solar environments, natural and synthetic materials, hard and soft sensations, and subtractive and additive fabrication. Made of two material elements--a solid wood milled shell housing and an intricate cellular skin made of sound-absorbing material--the chaise forms a semi-enclosed space surrounding the human with a stimulation-free environment, recapitulating the ultimate quiet of the womb. It is the first design to implement Stratasys' Connex3 technology using 44 materials with different pre-set mechanical combinations varying in rigidity, opacity, and color as a function of geometrical, structural, and acoustical constraints. This calming and still experience of being inside the chaise is an antidote to the stimuli-rich world in which we live.

  • Lichtenberg 3D Printing

    Neri Oxman and Steven Keating

    Generating 3D Lichtenberg structures in sintered media (i.e. glass) using electricity 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.

  • Living Mushtari

    Neri Oxman, Will Patrick, Steven Keating, Sunanda Sharma; Stratasys; Christoph Bader and Dominik Kolb; Pamela Silver and Stephanie Hays (Harvard Medical School); and Dr. James Weaver

    How can we design relationships between the most primitive and sophisticated life forms? Can we design wearables embedded with synthetic microorganisms that can enhance and augment biological functionality, and generate consumable energy when exposed to the sun? We explored these questions through the creation of Mushtari, a 3D-printed wearable with 58 meters of internal fluid channels. Designed to function as a microbial factory, Mushtari uses synthetic microorganisms to convert sunlight into useful products for the wearer, engineering a symbiotic relationship between two bacteria: photosynthetic cyanobacteria and E. coli. The cyanobacteria convert sunlight to sucrose, and E. coli convert sucrose to useful products such as pigments, drugs, food, fuel, and scents. This form of symbiosis, known as co-culture, is a phenomenon commonly found in nature. Mushtari is part of the Wanderers collection, an astrobiological exploration dedicated to medieval astronomers who explored worlds beyond by visiting worlds within.

  • 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, Will Patrick, Sunanda Sharma, Steven Keating, Steph Hays, Eléonore Tham, Professor Pam Silver, and Professor Tim Lu

    How can biological organisms be incorporated into product, fashion, and architectural design to enable the generation of multi-functional, responsive, and highly 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 pattern these organisms and induce their specific capabilities with spatiotemporal precision.

  • Printing Multi-Material 3D Microfluidics

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

    Computation and fabrication in biology occur 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.

  • Rottlace

    Neri Oxman, Christoph Bader and Dominik Kolb

    Rottlace is a family of masks designed for Icelandic singer-songwriter Björk. Inspired by Björk’s most recent album—Vulnicura—the Mediated Matter group explored themes associated with self-healing and expressing ‘the face without a skin.’ One of the masks from the series was selected for Björk’s stage performance at the Tokyo Miraikan Museum, and 3D printed by Stratasys using multi-material printing. This process enables the production of elaborate combinations of graded properties distributed over geometrically complex structures within a single object. Graded and tunable material properties are achieved through custom software as well as heterogeneous material modelling workflows. Combined, this computational framework enables micron-scale control of 3D printable material placement over highly complex geometric domains. This enables the design and 3D printing of complex, large-scale objects with continuous variations of modulus and transparency, within a single build.

  • 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.

  • Synthetic Apiary

    Neri Oxman, Jorge Duro-Royo, Markus Kayser, Sunanda Sharma, Dr. James Weaver (Wyss Institute); Dr. Anne Madden; Dr. Noah Wilson-Rich (Best Bees Company)

    The Synthetic Apiary proposes a new kind of environment, bridging urban and organismic scales by exploring one of the most important organisms for both the human species and our planet: bees. We explore the cohabitation of humans and other species through the creation of a controlled atmosphere and associated behavioral paradigms. The project facilitates Mediated Matter’s ongoing research into biologically augmented digital fabrication with eusocial insect communities in architectural, and possibly urban, scales. Many animal communities in nature present collective behaviors known as “swarming," prioritizing group survival over individuals, and constantly working to achieve a common goal. Often, swarms of organisms are skilled builders; for example, ants can create extremely complex networks by tunneling, and wasps can generate intricate paper nests with materials sourced from local areas.

  • Water-Based Additive Manufacturing

    Neri Oxman, Jorge Duro-Royo, and Laia Mogas-Soldevila, in collaboration with Dr. Javier G. Fernandez (Wyss Institute, Harvard University)

    This research presents water-based robotic fabrication as a design approach and enabling technology for additive manufacturing (AM) of biodegradable hydrogel composites. We focus on expanding the dimensions of the fabrication envelope, developing structural materials for additive deposition, incorporating material-property gradients, and manufacturing architectural-scale biodegradable systems. The technology includes a robotically controlled AM system to produce biodegradable composite objects, combining natural hydrogels with other organic aggregates. It demonstrates the approach by designing, building, and evaluating the mechanics and controls of a multi-chamber extrusion system. Finally, it provides evidence of large-scale composite objects fabricated by our technology that display graded properties and feature sizes ranging from micro- to macro-scale. Fabricated objects may be chemically stabilized or dissolved in water and recycled within minutes. Applications include the fabrication of fully recyclable products or temporary architectural components, such as tent structures with graded mechanical and optical properties.