So much creativity and imagination is focused on the digital world found in smart phones, apps and computers - rather than in the physical world around us. What if we could bring the dynamism and interactivity of the digital world into everyday physical objects?

MIT Media Lab alumnus and TED Fellow, James Patten, Ph.D. is rethinking the connection between people and everyday objects around them. His latest project Lift, is an interactive lighting feature that senses and responds to human activity.

In innovation and invention, the idea of the 'adjacent possible' defines the realm of possibilities among existing inventions, and more specifically - how an idea or invention in one context can be applied in a different context to create something completely new. The proliferation of digital devices has used this principle over and over to bring the physical world into the digital. Patten, on the other hand, is taking the adjacent possible from the digital world and integrating these ideas, patterns and models into the physical world with inventions like Lift.

"We stand at the dawn of a huge shift in the field of interaction design, one where the dynamism of the digital world is embodied in the physical, where our everyday objects have even richer interactivity than today's smartphones, and where the built environment and interactive media become one and the same," says James Patten, founder of Patten Studio.

Lift is comprised of 24 geometric petals attached to a single spine. Like a touch-screen that you don't need to touch, each petal senses and reacts to the movement of nearby people - fluttering slightly as someone walks beneath it or moving more dramatically in response to wild movements.

There's also an interesting secret behind the movement of each petal - motion that requires no electric motors or moving parts. The movement of each petal is actuated using a shape memory alloy known as nitinol.

Nitinol, also known as muscle wire, is in it's early stages when it comes to real-world usage outside of the medical industry. Like a muscle it 'flexes' when an electric charge is applied to heat up the wire. In Lift, the muscle wire is strung across each petal to the spine like a pulley system with no one pulling - all movement is a function of the contraction of the wire. The movement of each petal seen in the video requires a mere 1% contraction of the muscle wire.

Beyond being a new innovative application of muscle wire, it allows the lighting to have zero noise and a more organic movement than an electric motor could achieve.

Currently on display at SHoP Architects, Lift is a conversation starter. "It challenges us to think about the design decisions we can make when we not only begin to incorporate materiality and physicality, but also raise our expectations of technology and imbue our spaces with some of the richness, nuance, and immediacy we experience in the natural world," says Patten. "We often look at technology as something that separates - a couple sits at a restaurant looking at their phones instead of each other, mobile apps capture our attention with seemingly endless stimulation - but that behavior isn't inherent to technology. What we design today can and will have huge implications for tomorrow, shaping how we come to connect with those around us."

Published on: Feb 22, 2017