"One of the forecasting tenets that I live by is never mistake a clear view for a short distance," Saffo said.
But to MEMS scientists, the prospects seem limitless. At PARC, Weiser envisions movable toner. "The size of a piece of toner is the same as one of these micromachines, about 10 to 20 microns," he said. Doing electronic books one better, it's theoretically possible to create toner with mechanical "feet" that would move particles around to display a multi-page document on a single piece of paper that you could fold up and put in a shirt pocket, according to Weiser.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday July 28, 1998 Home Edition Business Part D Page 3 Financial Desk 2 inches; 41 words Type of Material: Correction
Smart Matter--A caption Monday with a photo of scientist Andrew Berlin incorrectly identified a portion of a Xerox Corp. Smart Matter experiment. The pictured object and accompanying detail photo is actually an array of air-jet flaps used to prove the concept of a touchless photocopier.
Perhaps the most bizarre Smart Matter idea is one that most Angelenos would welcome--collapsible cars.
A Smart Matter car would use lightweight materials that actively respond to road conditions and to a crash, Weiser said. Such a car might sense the shape of the object being hit and crumple away from the impact points. He envisions the car of the future as more like chain mail than sheet metal, with each link of chain independently perceptive, independently self-controlled.
Of course, applications like smart paint may be 20 years off, and chain mail cars might never be built. But current technology shows that Smart Matter is hardly science fiction.
Today's sound-canceling headphones designed for air travel use the same technology PARC envisions for sound-canceling paint. The headphones emit a sound frequency that is the opposite of that emitted by the drone of the engine and the air stream whooshing past the plane.
PARC scientist Andrew Berlin has already demonstrated a way of increasing the load-bearing capacity of beams and bridges using piezo materials.
Piezo materials were originally developed to control vibration in fighter jets. They emit an electrical charge when deformed or vibrated. As well-heeled ski bums know, "smart skis" use piezo technology to let skiers bounce down the most punishing moguls at high speeds with unprecedented control. Bumps and vibrations are absorbed, interpreted by on-board electronics and dissipated as heat.
In Berlin's experiment, he gradually increases the load on a model train bridge. Sensors feed information to microprocessors that instantly anticipate when and in what direction bridge supports will buckle. Then small piezo actuators press on support beams to prevent a collapse.
"At a very small scale, you can get a very significant increase in strength for certain geometric shapes," said Berlin. Not that this will lead to lightweight bridges for full-size trains. After all, the sensors and actuators would need a constant power supply. In the event of a power failure, the bridge would collapse.
But the research could help explain why and when parts fail in a wide range of devices. And it has a more profound conceptual implication, Berlin said. "You've taken a load off this beam by putting it into the computational world."
"It blurs the boundary between the digital world and the analog world in which we live," his colleague at PARC, principal scientist David Biegelsen, explained.
That blurring of the boundaries, according to futurist Saffo, represents a fundamental shift in how we relate to computers--and how they relate to us.
"There are two parallel universes, the physical world and a newer digital world of our own invention. But the two worlds barely touch--they interact through a glass-thin computer screen. Our computers have no idea that there is an analog reality around them," Saffo said. "Now what we're doing is giving computers and networks eyes, ears and sensory organs. But we're not going to stop there, we're going to ask them to operate on the physical world."
If he's right, Smart Matter and related sensor technologies will usher in the next revolution in computing. Instead of tools we control and communicate with through an "interface," computers will become integral, autonomous parts of common objects--from self-tracking FedEx parcels to ever-present microscopic security cameras embedded into walls and desktops--constantly monitoring and responding to the environment.
Many scientists foresee an age of ubiquitous sensors and distributed computers whose technical and political horizons are not yet visible.
Not surprisingly, the military is a key benefactor of MEMS research. Its MEMS-based aircraft, a few inches long, may soon put the accuracy of today's cruise missiles to shame. "Surveillance dust," in which millions of floating sensors resembling dandelion spores would be cast from aircraft, may soon track troop movements, send decoy signals or check for the presence of biological or chemical weapons.
"For people who feel a little white-knuckled about the pace of change and the effects of computers on our lives," said Saffo, "grab your seat belt."
Times staff writer Charles Piller can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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