Biological growth models + spectacular 3D printing = intergalactic wearables

Let me start by sharing this breathtaking video:

When I first saw this video, I had no idea what I was watching, yet I was completely captivated. I had to find out the story behind the video. Here is what I discovered.

The video shows the computational growth process used to create pieces for an art exhibit called “Wanderers: An Astrobiological Exploration” (recently on display at the EuroMold conference in Frankfurt, Germany) by MIT Professor Neri Oxman in collaboration with Christoph Bader and Dominik Kolb. The idea behind the project was to use these growth processes to develop wearables—futuristic wearables, made to assist humans in exploring, or even habitating, other (hostile) planets. The collection is described on Oxman’s website:

“The series represents the classical elements understood by the ancients to sustain life (earth, water, air and fire), and offers their biological counterpart in the form of microorganisms engineered to produce life-sustaining elements. The wearables are designed to interact with a specific environment characteristic of their destination and generate sufficient quantities of biomass, water, air and light necessary for sustaining life: some photosynthesize converting daylight into energy, others bio-mineralize to strengthen and augment human bone, and some fluoresce to light the way in pitch darkness. Each wearable is designed for a specific extreme environment where it transforms elements that are found in the atmosphere to one of the classical elements supporting life: oxygen for breathing, photons for seeing, biomass for eating, biofuels for moving, and calcium for building.”

For the work shown in this video, the team designed a biologically inspired computational growth process in which an initial seed grows, continuously refining its shape as it adapts to its environment. “Due to the generative nature of the algorithm it was possible to create a wide range of wearables that adapt to the human body for pre-visualization and design iteration,” explains Christoph Bader on his website. All of the design concepts were actually produced as well, using the Objet500 Connex3 Color Multi-material 3D Production System (Stratasys). According to Bader, this is the first time that volumetric color and transparency gradients have been achieved using 3D printers. For example, check out the designs and their corresponding prototypes below (all images and descriptions taken from Oxman’s website):

Al-Qamar (القمر) Luna’s Wanderer. Named after the the goddess Luna (Arabic: Qamar), the divine embodiment of the moon often characterized by a two-yoke chariot, Luna is the most luminous object in the sky after the sun. Inspire’d by the Moon’s surface texture this design functions as a wearable pneumatic surface for generating and storing oxygen. Unlike a wearable biodome, this texture contains spatial spherical pockets for algae-based air-purification and biofuel collection.
Zuhal (زحل) Saturn’s Wanderer. Saturn is known for its vortex storms forming where there is a steep latitudinal gradient in the speed of winds blowing across the planet’s atmosphere. Named after the Roman god of agriculture, its Arabic name reflects the planet and the mythology, representing fertility and growth. The wearable is covered with a dense hairy texture responding to Saturn’s vortex winds with intricate structures characterised by high surface area to volume ratio. It is designed as a wearable vortex field, varying in size, density and organization to accommodate for local wind variation. Saturn’s moon Titan has been known to include hydrocarbons in its upper atmosphere as a possible precursor for life. Its other moon Enceladus with is ocean like composition has been often regarded as a potential base for microbial life. The hairy fiberous surface is designed to contain bacteria that can convert hydrocarbons to edible matter that can be safely consumed by humans.
Mushtari (مشتري) Jupiter’s Wanderer. Jupiter is the largest planet in the Solar System with a mass two and a half times greater than the mass of all other planets in the Solar System combined. Named after the king of the gods, its Arabic name reflects is vastness (Mushtari means huge, giant). Designed as a single strand filled with living matter inspired by the form and function of the human gastrointestinal tract, this wearable is designed as a an organ system for consuming and digesting biomass, absorbing nutrients and expelling waste. The peristaltic movement of matter within 3D printed translucent tracts is designed to support the flow of cyanobacteria engineered to convert daylight into consumable sucrose.
Otaared (عطارد) Mercury’s Wanderer. Named after the Roman deity Mercury (Arabic: Otaared), the messenger to the gods, the planet Mercury lacks any atmosphere, making it susceptible to impacts over its entire surface. The expression mercurial is typically used to refer to something or someone erratic, volatile or unstable, derived from Mercury’s swift flights from place to place. Otaared is designed as antler-like extensions of the scapulae to protect the head. The 3D printed structure is computationally grown from the scapulae and the sternum outward generating a branched winged exoskeleton. The printed shell is designed to contain calcifying bacteria grown within a wearable Caduceus. The ultimate goal is to grow true bone structures acting as protective exoskeleton.

Professor Oxman leads the Mediated Matter group (a pretty darn good-looking group of scientists, by the way), out of the MIT Media Lab, whose proclaimed goal is to “create biologically inspired and engineered design fabrication tools and technologies and structures aiming to enchain the relation between natural and man-made environments.” Oxman is also an exhibiting artist whose works have been shown in the MoMA, the Smithsonian, and the Pompidou, to name a few.