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Cutting edge: Intel's shape-shifting super substance

"It's not realistic to consider all the possible arrangements for millions of nodes," Campbell explains.

The combination of torques, forces and strengths of a complex system built from millions of spherical nodes is fiendishly complex. Likewise, it's not practical to have the detailed position of each node transmitted back and forth to the central control unit.

Fuzzy logic

The answer is a fuzzier, more arm's length approach to controlling the spheres. Instead of sending commands to individual nodes, requests might be sent for the ensemble of nodes to assume a new shape.

On a more local level, that request can then be translated into the detailed arrangement of nodes.

So, that's a really rough guide to how DPR might work. How exactly does Campbell think the world will use such an exotic material? In the short term obvious applications include product design interfaces.

"DPR material gives you the ability to instantly see, touch and manipulate the things you are designing. Take that one step further and you can sculpt objects in 3D with your hand and send those changes back into the computer model of the product."

If that's sounds mundane, there are plenty of far-out and futuristic possibilities. How about a brand new form of teleconferencing? Forget holograms, what if you could not only see, but also physically interact with an artificial rendering of a friend or work colleague? Or perhaps shape-shifting gadgets are your bag?

Imagine DPR as a material for building computing devices. You might still have a conventional battery, CPU and radio in a laptop-like device. But the screen and keyboard and everything else could be formed of a volume of DPR material allowing you to reshape the package to suit particular applications.

A new philosophy

That philosophy can be applied to almost any physical object. All the furniture in your house might one day be made of DPR material and reconfigure itself according to your mood, needs or aesthetic preferences.

And just imagine the sort of active aerodynamics that could be achieved for passenger or military jets using suitably robust DPR material. The mind boggles.

The final question is how DPR fits into Intel's business plans and just how serious it is about the project. For now, it remains a university-lab sort of effort with a relatively modest budget.

But for any self-respecting technology aficionado, this is arguably the most exciting research effort taking place on planet earth today. So, here's hoping the DPR team are allowed just enough resources to prove the worth of their concept.

For an in depth feature exploring the background and further implications of this fascinating research, pick up next month's copy of PC Plus magazine.