MIT Programmable droplets
Image: Tangible Media Group

MIT researchers are working on a technology that turns water droplets into programmable and interactive tools for information manipulation and human interaction.

The “Programmable Droplets” project is being led by researcher Udayan Umapathi and professor Hiroshi Ishii from MIT’s Tangible Media Group.

“If you think about it, as we walk in rain, wash our hands or even work in laboratories, we are constantly interacting with water,” said Umapathi.

“So we started asking the question, if this beautiful and inspiring material which is ever-present could give us a ‘calm’ computer interface. To show that this is possible, we have created the Programmable Droplets system for interaction.”

The idea behind this project was to computationally reconfigure physical matter (water in this case) to manipulate ways of interacting with a computer and use it for creativity, art, entertainment, and communication.

So they have created a computer-controlled system that employs electric fields to move the water droplets across a board and even merge them with other droplets.

Based on a 19th-century technique called “electrowetting,” the hardware in itself is a circuit board whose surface has hundreds of gold-plated copper pads embedded in it and connected by wiring underneath.

The electric fields cause the droplets of chemical or biological solutions to move around the surface and mixes them in ways that allow testing of thousand reactions simultaneously.

At present, this system can perform a set of primitive operations such as translating, morphing, merging and splitting multiple droplets at the same time. The device can also be integrated with other devices to enable information display and to help make art.

Even though the project is still in its early stages with a huge of scope for improvement, it is incredibly impressive to see a common substance such as water being turned into a modern interface.

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