If you get very, very lucky when you're doing the dishes, the water streaming out of your tap might occasionally splash onto a bowl or spoon in just the right way and spread out into a flawless hemispherical water curtain that means you can stop doing the dishes for a while to admire it.
Students at MIT have learned to do it on purpose. Members of MIT’s 2014 Tangible Interfaces class, taught by Professor Hiroshi Ishii, have created HydroMorph: a “dynamic spatial water membrane” that can turn this pleasingly curvy splash into a flapping bird, form it into an interactive countdown timer, direct it into a cup, and do all kinds of other things that water shouldn’t really be able to do.
Besides just making lots of pretty shapes, the MIT researchers (led by Pasquale Totaro and Ken Nakagaki, with Thariq Shihipar, Chantine Akiyama, Jim Peraino at Harvard, and Yin Shuang at Wellesley) have come up with a whole bunch of use cases that (somewhat surprisingly) actually seem, well, useful. If you had one of these in your sink, it could, among other things:
- Alert you to whether the water is safe to drink by showing you either a blooming flower or a wilted flower
- Help prevent wasted water by reminding you to turn off the faucet with “a radical motion representing rage” (whatever that is)
- Fill one or more cups by directing streams of water into them
- Prevent you from burning yourself by making the water avoid your hands when it’s too hot, or by aiming the water at your hands to help you wash them
- Show you, through basic shapes (like a sun or an umbrella), what the weather forecast is
The MIT students say that they were directly inspired by Yuki Sugihara’s “Water Membrane Creatures,” which use static shapes to form water membranes into spiders, flowers, and butterflies:
MIT took this concept and extended it by dynamically changing the shape underneath the water stream to result in water membranes with which you can interact. The system underlying HydroMorph (the water shaping device) is made up of an array of 10 tiny 3-D arrows, all arranged in a circle and pointing upward towards the water stream. The water splashes out from the center of the circle.
Image: MIT Media Lab
Each arrow can be individually raised or lowered by a servo. If all the arrows are lowered, you get a circular water membrane; raising individual arrows pokes holes of different sizes in different parts of the membrane to make shapes. Here’s a diagram of how one of those little arrows works:
Illustration: MIT Media Lab
Interactivity comes from a camera mounted above the system. By increasing the number of arrows, the resolution of the water membrane shapes can be increased. The researchers are also planning to upgrade their system to make the surface that the water stream hits adjustable, allowing them to control the size and shape of the inital membrane.
Illustration: MIT Media Lab
It’s tempting to look at this thing (which is obviously very much a work in progress) and think that its overall practicality is kinda questionable. But I have to say, lots of those in-sink use cases are very cool. What’s more likely, though, is that we’ll see HydroMorph first implemented as part of a larger scale installation like an outdoor fountain, where lots of people could interact with the membrane all at once.
Evan Ackerman is the senior writer for IEEE Spectrum’s award-winning robotics blog, Automaton. Since 2007, he has written over 6,000 articles on robotics and emerging technology, covering conferences and events on every single continent except Africa, Antarctica, Australia, and South America (although he remains optimistic). In addition to Spectrum, Evan’s work has appeared in a variety of other online publications including Gizmodo and Slate, and you may have heard him on NPR’s Science Friday or the BBC World Service if you were listening at just the right time. Evan has an undergraduate degree in Martian geology, which he almost never gets to use, and still wants to be an astronaut when he grows up. In his spare time, he enjoys scuba diving, rehabilitating injured raptors, and playing bagpipes excellently.