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One Foot In The Future: "Living Materials" Could Produce Self-Repairing Shoes

Rachel Armstrong is a scientist who’s interested in creating “living materials”—materials that can grow, repair themselves, and even respond to changes in their immediate environment. The concept reads like something pulled from the pages of science fiction, and while the materials aren’t actually alive (they have no DNA), they mimic the properties of living organisms.

Armstrong has been researching this concept with a number of collaborators. She helped develop the systems used in Philip Beesley’s semi-living installation Hylozoic Ground, which is made from cybernetic machines with primitive sensors and effectors. But the main part of her research into these living materials explores an emerging technology called protocells, which are synthetic versions of cells engineered by scientists to display certain chosen behaviors.

For instance, they could be engineered to capture carbon dioxide and used in “smart paints” that could turn carbon emissions into solid carbonate form, like limestone, so the outside of your home becomes “carbon negative architecture”. We didn’t just make that up, it’s an actual use case that Dr. Armstrong is exploring as a potential application for these manmade, self-organizing cells. Another is to stop Venice from sinking using self-repairing reefs that could “regrow” a building’s foundations. This is far from your run-of-the-mill blueprints and particle board.

A protoshell

The concept can extend to more than just architecture, however. Another potential use is as a replacement for the standard shoe sole, rendering your lame rubber/leather/wood/whatever sole obsolete. No more wearing away of the heel and sending your favorite pair of boots to the cobbler’s all the time, that’ll be but a quaint relic of a much simpler, uncivilized time.

This protosole (currently in its “earliest stages of product development”) will consist of a fluid, bubble-like reservoir nested in the heel of the shoe and containing all the ingredients to create, on demand, new protocells. These new cells will then be pumped to the areas that need repairing, patching up holes with solid substances that are activated by carbon dioxide in the air. As long as you keep the heel topped up with the necessary chemicals, potentially available from supermarkets, (which “come in a number of varieties that offer a choice of sole substances that can be mixed and matched to consumer tastes: non-slip, extra-durable, heat-producing, gas-releasing for added comfort, scented, brightly colored, or even glow-in-the-dark for those who wish to leave a trail of luminescent footprints behind them”), your sole will continue to self-repair.

We fired a few questions over to Dr. Armstrong to find out a bit more about these intriguing shoe soles and the idea of protocells becoming an ever-increasing presence in our daily lives:

The Creators Project: Why did you want to create the protosole? Was it a way of testing protocell technology? Or were you just sick of getting holes in your shoes?
Dr. Rachel Armstrong:
Actually the protocell shoe was a response to Bruce Sterling’s blog [post] just a couple of weeks earlier. I actually responded immediately but needed to identify a visual that could embody the idea of the protocell as a self-repair on demand system.

There were a number of reasons why it was so easy to imagine the protosole. For one, I’ve been working on developing contexts for the protocell as a technology since 2009 and identifying situations in which this kind of approach to problem solving is meaningful. Mechanical solutions to everyday problems (replacing ‘parts’) are the most frequent way in which we address daily challenges, so when Bruce provided a context in which the protocell technology could play a meaningful role, it was clear how the system would work.

What made you choose the visual?
Michael Wihart’s biomechanical shoe (below) was a perfect choice as an exemplary aesthetic of a protocell shoe and Next Nature’s notion of a Nano Supermarket provided further inspiration as to how a protocell shoe could become an everyday experience.

What is interesting to me about applications of protocell technology is when they disappear into the mundane aspects of our lives, rather than becoming fetishized as a ‘thing of difference’—in the way that gadgets are fashionable items. There is nothing wrong with making technology hyper visible and an engaging aesthetic experience, but it’s equally interesting to design something that simply melts into the flow of our lives, like the electromagnetic waves that enable the phone and internet. In the same way the Future Venice situation (in which the city is reclaimed by the growth of an artificial limestone reef underneath its foundations) depicts a context in which large scale application of protocell technology remains remarkably invisible yet incredibly functional. It is possible to think of the artificial Venetian reef as a dynamic iceberg processor that generates environmental outputs. In the same way, the protocell shoe is simply a smaller scale version of the same kind of material computing that terrestrial matter is making every day and we don’t notice that either!

How long before we see these types of products—-self-repairing soles, smart paint—commercially available?
The technology and design challenge is how we can bring together sets of ‘actants’ (non-human participants in our daily lives—defined by Jane Bennett in Vibrant Matter) that we know have an affinity with each other and organise these juxtapositions in time and space. This approach is underpinned by a complex reading of the world and we have still not figured out exactly how we design and engineer with complexity. The protocell system provides a model that could help us learn a great deal about the practical applications of theories of complexity and test them in common situations by designing and engineering products that we already use.

I consider the protocell system as being potentially the most ‘natural’ and ‘environmentally’ engaged technology that we know to date. Its equivalents are being developed at equally early stages of development in fields of computing such as ‘unconventional computing’ and ‘morphological’ computing’, which look to the embodiment of information as a problem solving approach.

So it could be sometime for the protosole?
In terms of the practical implementation of these kinds of technology, such as the protosole—with the right kind of funding, we could have working systems within 3-5 years. The issue currently is that we have no existing products in circulation as yet. Protocell paints are being considered by a couple of paint companies but nothing is yet on the shelf, so the right kind of investment that we’d need to make these ideas happen is not yet sufficient to take the journey from idea to implemented reality.

Whether the system is protocell paint, a giant reef or a simple shoe sole, the same principles underly all these products and the development of any of these projects will teach us a great deal about new ways of making and shaping our environments in a way that is more nature-friendly. The computational processes share the same ‘language’ as biology in the principles of chemistry and physics (this is in contrast to digital computing whose electron displays and mechanical outputs do not have an innate connection with our environments so we have to design further devices like printers, or act upon digital instructions ourselves in response to the information they carry).

Could they extend into a whole clothing range?
Protocell technology is a problem-solving approach—rather than a ‘thing’ that works in a particular way, so it has a great many potential applications that would indeed extend to other forms of clothing. Protocells are really just droplet based ‘containers’ that can move chemistry around in time and space that is triggered by specific contexts. Protocells need wet conditions in order to be useful and so would need to be contained in ‘vascular’ systems and allowed to ‘interact’ with the environment at points of venting, valves or sensors that could read environmental changes and enable the protocell system to respond appropriately to its context.

Do you have any other protocell products in development?
The protocell ‘vascular systems’ could be materials in themselves. I’d love to see a Julius Popp ‘Bit Flow’ style capillary system that produces outputs that are readable only from certain perspectives—a form of material anamorphic computing. Protocell clothing vasculature could also be hyper visible and woven on to the surface of conventional cloths or disappear deep into the weave and padding of jackets. Protocell solutions in clothing could carry much of the functionality of the protosole technology, such as the capacity to generate heat in cool conditions, fluoresce, or change color, perhaps through a display of spectacular self-organizing patterns.

Ultimately, because the protocell technology is simply a hardware, the spectrum of its potential applications are really only limited by our imagination. Also, and perhaps even more importantly, protocell technology needs support at the level of basic research and development, and national support and funding is vital for this field of research to reach the technological maturity that they can start to fulfill some of our dreams and desires.

(h/t Bruce Sterling at Beyond the Beyond)

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