Intel is working on Claytronics an emerging field of engineering concerning reconfigurable microscale robots The researchers propose to make moving, physical, three-dimensional replicas of people or objects, so lifelike that human senses would accept them as real. When you finished using a replica for one purpose, you could transform it into another useful shape. A human replica could morph into a desk or a chair. This would be a step towards utility fog and systems for synthetic reality.
Five years from now, the DPR researchers expect to have working ensembles of catoms that are close to spherical in shape. These catoms still will be large enough that no one will confuse a replica with the real thing (for that, catoms will probably have to shrink to less than a millimeter in diameter). But the catoms will be sufficiently robust that researchers can experiment with a variety of shapes, test hypotheses about ensemble behavior, and begin to envision where the technology might lead within a decade or two.
Carnegie Mellon has been researching this field and is working with Intel research in Pittsburgh.
Intel refers to the field as Dynamic Physical Rendering
The basic unit is catom. Researchers have already created a prototype catom that is 44 millimeters in diameter. The goal is to eventually produce catoms that are one or two millimeters in diameter-small enough to produce convincing replicas.
Cost is an issue: dynamic physical rendering could become viable long before Moore's Law drives down the cost of a catom to a micro cent. Even if catoms could be produced for a dollar each, some visualization applications might be economically viable. Certain other applications, such as programmable antennas, could be attractive even if a catom sold for tens or hundreds of dollars.
the May 2007 issue of Business 2.0 has an article on Claytronics.
The catoms would move and configure themselves using electrostatic and electromagnetic forces.
Diagram of a 100 micrometer foglet. This would have 1000 times less volume than a 1 millimeter spherical catom. Still Claytronics would be a significant step in the direction of utility fog.