This Kirigami-Inspired Mechanical Computer Needs No Electronics, Only Plastic Blocks and Tape

This computer computes through the movement of plastic blocks, rather than electrons — and could drive 3D displays or cryptographic systems.

Gareth Halfacree
20 days agoHW101

Researchers at the North Carolina State University have developed a computer unlike no other: rather than electronics, the system works mechanically using physical cubes inspired by the Japanese art of paper-cutting, or kirigami.

"We were interested in doing a couple things here,” Jie Yin, associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at NC State and co-corresponding author on the paper, explains of the team's work. "First, we were interested in developing a stable, mechanical system for storing data. Second, this proof-of-concept work focused on binary computing functions with a cube being either pushed up or pushed down — it's either a 1 or a 0."

"But," Yin continues, "we think there is potential here for more complex computing, with data being conveyed by how high a given cube has been pushed up. We've shown within this proof-of-concept system that cubes can have five or more different states. Theoretically, that means a given cube can convey not only a 1 or a 0, but also a 2, 3 or 4."

When Yin talks about cubes being pushed up or down, that's not a metaphor: the team's computer is mechanical, using physical plastic cubes arranged in ways inspired by kirigami, the Japanese art of paper-cutting closely related to the paper-folding art origami. The cubes can be manipulated by hand, or through an external magnetic field — but are, themselves, free of electronics.

"One potential application for this is that it allows for users to create three-dimensional, mechanical encryption or decryption," claims first author Yanbin Li of the system's practical potential. "For example, a specific configuration of functional units could serve as a 3D password. And the information density is quite good. Using a binary framework — where cubes are either up or down — a simple metastructure of 9 functional units has more than 362,000 possible configurations."

"But we're not necessarily limited to a binary context," Yin reiterates. "Each functional unit of 64 cubes can be configured into a wide variety of architectures, with cubes stacked up to five cubes high. This allows for the development of computing that goes well beyond binary code. Our proof-of-concept work here demonstrates the potential range of these architectures, but we have not developed code that capitalizes on those architectures. We'd be interested in collaborating with other researchers to explore the coding potential of these metastructures."

The team's work has been published in the journal Science Advances under open-access terms; the researchers say they're also investigating its adaptation into a haptic system for the display of three-dimensional data.

Gareth Halfacree
Freelance journalist, technical author, hacker, tinkerer, erstwhile sysadmin. For hire: freelance@halfacree.co.uk.
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