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  • Cephalopod Meets Baymax: The Rise of Color-Changing Robots

Photonics Spectra
Apr 2016

Imagine a health-care robot that can display patient information and then respond to human touch. Or consider the prospect of a pocket-sized flat screen display that could expand to six or seven times its size.

While these applications may sound futuristic, a group of graduate students from Cornell University has unveiled a new hyperelastic, light-emitting material that could lead to significant advances in soft robotics, health care and other areas.

Inspired by octopuses, Cornell University researchers created a multipixel electroluminescent display fabricated via replica molding.

Inspired by octopuses, Cornell University researchers created a multipixel electroluminescent display fabricated via replica molding. Background image courtesy of Science, Organic Robotics Lab, Cornell University.

The stretchable skin consists of layers of transparent hydrogel electrodes that sandwich a dielectric elastomer layer, creating thin rubber sheets that change illuminance when stretched, rolled or shaped. Notably, the material can stretch more than six times its size and withstand twice the strain of earlier stretchable displays.

In creating the hyperelastic light-emitting capacitor, the Cornell team drew inspiration from octopuses, which feature a combination of stretchable skin and color-tuning organs. These features allow the octopus to control both posture and color for disguise or visual communication. “A lot of our work is motivated by nature,” said Chris Larson, a graduate student and one of the authors of the group’s paper, “Highly Stretchable Electroluminescent Skin for Optical Signaling and Tactile Sensing,” which appeared in the March 3 online edition of Science.

In addition to its ability to emit light under a strain of greater than 480 percent its original size, the material was integrated into a soft robotic system. Three six-layer panels were bound together, with the top four layers capable of lighting up and changing color.

“This material can stretch with the body of a soft robot, and that’s what our group does,” said Rob Shepherd, assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, who led the team. “It allows robots to change their color and it also allows displays to change their shape.

“Why is this important? For one thing, when robots become more and more a part of our lives, the ability for them to have emotional connections with us will be important. So to be able to change their color in response to mood or the tone of the room we believe is going to be important for human-robot interactions.”

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