Although Optimus Prime doesn't need to fire up his engines for fear of a Decpticon threat just yet, a team of researchers at Harvard and MIT have taken humanity one step closer to the self-transforming robot concept.
The Cambridge, MA team, led by Robert Wood and Daniela Rus have created what they term "programmable matter", which currently takes the physical form of a thin sheet of metal divided into multiple triangular sections. These sections are made of rigid tiles with elastomer joints between them, which serves to keep the whole thing from ripping apart. Foil actuators are then placed along the "fold" lines, and an electric current is supplied.
Depending on which actuators are activated first, a whole range of shapes can be created. The video supplied by the team showed the sheet folding from flat into two common origami shapes - a boat and a plane - though the plane looked more like something you would create during a particularly boring lecture, then stare stupidly at when it wouldn't fly properly. The tiny wings and too-heavy body might have something to do with that, genius.
In order to create the folding magic that does not need human hands, the circuitry required to create the folds was placed in small "stickers" at particular locations on the sheet. Once the electricity ran its tingly fingers all over the sheet, the stickers provided the know-how, the actuators provided the folding, and magnetic clips provided a way to make sure the whole thing didn't fall apart.
The Cambridge creators compare this process to the patterns used in origami books, and beileve that with a little bit of work and a lot more metal, its should be possible to create any number of shapes - from fork/spoon combinations that change configuration at will, to Swiss Army knives that can not only do everything, but be everything.
While techno-sporks and super-knives are all well and good, the application of this technology on a large scale is still some distance away, so don't expect to be driving a Bumblebee lookalike anytime soon or hearing the dulcet tones of Peter Cullen's voice coming from the next Semi truck you see on the highway.
Still, this is a significant step forward, and from the video it appears to work pretty damn well. Aside from the hilarity that will result when one of these new "programmable matter" devices gets stuck on perma-fold and refuses to stay in either form, making eating a soup and salad a quick and dangerous proposition, this is one technology to watch out for.
Also, stay the hell away from Megatron. He is one bad dude. If you've really got to go see him, at least bring a techno-spork. He hates those.