Stefanie Mueller refuses to accept that objects in the material world must remain as they are; she prefers to think of physical reality as endlessly customizable. When she casts her eye across a room, she seizes upon all the things that could be transformed and personalized. Take her office. Opposite the door, next to the window, is a black leather couch that forms an L around a glass table. No matter the occasion for using the couch—a formal meeting with a funding agency or a playful brainstorming session with her research group—the couch remains the same.
But Mueller imagines a couch that can change, starting with its outward appearance. She and her students are working with a collection of “photochromic” inks that go from clear to colorful when activated by specific wavelengths of ultraviolet light. They mix together three transparent dyes (that can become cyan, yellow, or magenta), spray-coat the mixture onto a surface (like a couch), and then use the ultraviolet light to change the object’s color. The color endures until the object is hit with a different specific wavelength in the visible spectrum. That resets the dyes to transparent, which means “you can infinitely erase and recolor as you like,” says Mueller.
Across the lab, two research students are conducting a demo of the technique. They have loaded a psychedelic pattern into the computer and are projecting it onto the door of a small model car. Within minutes, the door recolors. Mueller’s team has already applied the technology successfully to mobile phone cases, and she’s eager to try it with clothing and actual cars.
The X-Window Consortium Career Development assistant professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science with a joint appointment in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, Mueller heads up the HCI Engineering Group at the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab at MIT, where she works at the intersection of human-computer interaction and personal fabrication.
Her mission is “to enable the physical world to behave like the digital world.” Online and on our phones, we can edit videos, apply photo filters, and personalize our virtual lives with the flick of a finger. Mueller is seeking ways to reprogram and customize the physical world so we can make similar edits to our very reality.
She says that the maker movement, which has embraced increasingly affordable technologies like 3-D printers and laser cutters, is allowing us to knit together our physical and digital worlds. But obstacles remain. Making something on a laser cutter, for instance, requires a high level of technical expertise, including knowing how to tweak dozens of settings to get the object you want when the cuts are complete.
To address this gap between interest and aptitude, Mueller is analyzing the workflow to find ways of automating those intermediate steps. Which is to say that to achieve her goal of building a future where anyone can create anything anywhere anytime, Mueller is developing both the hardware and software to advance personal fabrication for all. It’s in part what motivates her teaching, which centers on getting students to dream up and then build their own ways of bending reality (like adjustable-height high heels or a fishing rod that doubles as an interactive gaming device).
Recoloring is just the beginning for Mueller. She muses about reshaping objects: “How great would it be if you could take your mobile phone and just pull on the corners and the screen and everything would get bigger?” she ponders. Mueller is also trying to flex function in the physical world, finding ways of imbuing objects with multiple forms and purposes at once.
Mueller says she takes nothing in the world for granted. Everything is mutable. Reality is rubbery. And being unsatisfied with the way things are is the only mechanism “to live this dream of making everything dynamically changeable.”