Fold it into a hammer, a wrench, or a crane.

“Programmable matter” is such a far-out concept that it’s difficult to imagine it even existing outside the movies. But, thanks to some creative work done by scientists funded by DARPA (who else?), it might actually become a reality, creating materials that can be programmed to alter themselves at the molecular level into various shapes and then disassemble to form entirely new ones.

Imagine universal tools that can morph to perform the specific job needed. Imagine vehicles and clothes that that can automatically change shape–perhaps even at the molecular level–according to terrain or climate.

Signal Magazine has a new report on the “Programmable Matter” initiative, spanning a group of projects working towards the final goal of creating substances that can morph into objects as needed.

One Harvard team has created “self-folding origami,” structures with integrated actuators and data storage that will fold themselves into different shapes. A team from MIT has even built tiny servo motors that can control the assembly of objects underwater or in space.

Other teams have approached problem by mimicking DNA or ptortein-synthesis in the creation of objects. The projects are only into their second stage of development, ending sometime next spring, but by that time they are hoping to have a working model that can assemble into a few different solids.

Once some of these ideas are realized or integrated into a working form, the possibilities are almost endless. Blurring the line between materials and mechanics, it may even result in new states of matter. One possibility are “infoliquids”and “infosolids”, materials than straddle the line between solid and liquid, with information encoded into its chemistry. Another possibility is the creation of robots that can shift sizes and even states of matter to squeeze through narrow passages or around obstacles.

Wired also points to Intel, which has done research into the field as well, theorizing models that can mimic shapes in real-time, similar to holograms. This could allow a replica of yourself to exist and move as you do somewhere on the other side of the world.

Forget Autobots and Decepticons, this is the real deal.

[SIGNAL Magazine, ZDNet via Wired Danger Room]