Consider hair. It keeps our heads warm (though this is less effective for some of us who are follicly-challenged). It can reduce friction between surfaces. But hairs do much more than that. They keep us from falling over, due to the tiny cilia in the inner ear that help with our sense of balance. They also help keep our windpipes clear of mucus and debris. They help us with our sense of touch. It could be helpful to capture some of these features to fabricate devices that could perform a wide range of useful functions.
Researchers at the Tangible Media Group at MIT have developed a system to produce complex hair with fine details using 3D printing. They call these 3D hairs “Cilllia” and can fabricate them with features as small as 50 micrometers. The result is hair with specific characteristics, orientation, density, and structure that can be tuned to different applications. For example, hairs that are designed to mesh together (think “Avatar” hair connection) to make two objects stick together. Or vibrate the hairs to move objects in specific directions. Or use the hairs to create a motor that can make a shaft rotate. Or add sensors to the substrate to create a touchpad that can sense the direction and speed of a swipe gesture. The possibilities seem to be endless.
For wearables, this new technology could lead to a variety of new sensors for measuring body operations or user interfaces. It could create a new range of solid state actuators and motors on a tiny scale. It could even form the basis for new prosthetic devices to replace some bodily functions. It will be fascinating to see where this new development leads.