Desert of the Real
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Researchers at MIT's Distributed Robotics Laboratory is working on so-called "smart sand," which would allow for the "spontaneous formation of new tools or duplication of broken mechanical parts." Current prototypes of the substance—essentially, large cubes, seen in the photograph above—operate by way of "rudimentary microprocessors inside and very unusual magnets" on their edges, as ScienceDaily explains.
A heap of smart sand would be analogous to the rough block of stone that a sculptor begins with. The individual grains would pass messages back and forth and selectively attach to each other to form a three-dimensional object; the grains not necessary to build that object would simply fall away. When the object had served its purpose, it would be returned to the heap. Its constituent grains would detach from each other, becoming free to participate in the formation of a new shape.Outlining what this might actually look like, should the Distributed Robotics Lab succeed at implementing their vision, ScienceDaily suggests you "imagine that you have a big box of sand in which you bury a tiny model of a footstool. A few seconds later, you reach into the box and pull out a full-size footstool: The sand has assembled itself into a large-scale replica of the model."
You can read more at the Distributed Robotics Laboratory news site; but it's too tantalizing a scenario to pass up mentioning other, much larger-scale possibilities for this technology, especially a scenario where "smart sand" has, as it were, escaped into the wild. Imagine whole deserts of this stuff, magnetically self-assembling into temporary sandstone cities, walls, and hills, a landscape of shifting urban forms you have to travel through, map, or settle. Like a deleted scene from Invisible Cities as rewritten by Magnus Larsson.
[Image: Kaleidoscope Ridge, Arizona (1982), photo by James Blair, courtesy of National Geographic].
Wandering tribes armed with mysterious handheld magnetic technologies reach into the sides of dunes and pull out whole buildings—where they proceed to sleep for the night before moving on the next day, their instant villages dissolving at dawn, "returned to the heap," as ScienceDaily would say.
Or—perhaps in some future game brought to you by BLDGBLOG and Big Robot—you have to battle your way forward through infinite sandstone buildings that rise up, one after the other, like endless violent waves rolling as far as the eye can see, a desert of shapes lurching and unbuilding themselves toward you, forever. You jump through doors, up stairways, over walls, never advancing forward more than a few feet at a time, blinded by clouds of sand crashing on all sides, always another building ready to rise up out of the moving dunes and block you.