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Confusingly, and perhaps annoyingly for the firm concerned, this relatively new technical term has no direct connection with the business of the same name selling educational products for young children.

This type of claytronics is definitely grown-up play dough, also known as programmable matter or dynamic physical rendering. The project — at the moment still a long way from realisation — is to create nanoscale robotic mechanisms with computing ability, capable of changing form and joining together to form larger-scale mechanisms or objects. The researchers have called these individual micro-robots catoms, claytronic atoms. The name claytronics was deliberately chosen to suggest modelling clay, but may be from claymation, a method of film animation using adjustable clay figures and stop-motion photography. The research — at Carnegie-Mellon University in the US — goes by the name of the Synthetic Reality Project.

One of the aims of the project is to create a new communications medium that the researchers called pario, which will reproduce moving, physical, three-dimensional objects (made up of collections of these catoms) that are realistic enough that you will accept them as real, so creating in effect 3D television.

Researchers in the US ... reckon that within two decades a talking, walking Claytronic human morph could be visually indistinguishable from the person it represents.

Personal Computer World, Jan. 2007

If it works, claytronics could transform communication, entertainment, medicine, and more. The research may help scientists learn how to better manage networks that consist of millions of computers. It will also advance their understanding of nanotechnology — how to make tiny, tiny parts do useful things.

Science News for Kids, 17 May 2006

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