THE DIGITAL PHYSICAL

December 2020

Illusory Material bridges the digital and analogue world of design. Team member Jiani Zeng explains exactly what a 3D lenticular printing framework is, and why such a technique is an open door for designers.


With emerging technologies such as AR/VR, 3D animation, and high-fidelity renderings, people are getting more used to responsive virtual objects and spaces. The way we define materiality is constantly changing and adapting to these technologies. “Digital materiality” has become familiar to designers and architects as a common design medium in everyday projects: it is free of physical limitations, manufacturing restrictions, forms and expressions. Designers can easily invent material properties that never existed before. However, adapting to a new physical material takes much longer and is highly limited by current manufacturability.

The speed of material evolving very much determines the split of the digital and analogue world of design. But what happens when designing physical materials is as easy as designing digital materials?

Illusory Material is a design philosophy and computational workflow that brings the freedom of creating digital materials into the physical world. Honghao Deng and myself, together with our advisors prof. Axel Kilian and prof. Stefanie Muller at MIT, invented a 3D lenticular printing framework that enables designers to create dynamic colour and texture in a controlled way, expanding material presence to material experience in everyday products.

Imagine creating objects with seemingly ‘impossible’ materials that could previously only exist in the digital world, a future where designers can manipulate the colour, texture, and refractivity of materials across time and different viewing angles; imagine that the future of colour creation is not based on layers of chemical paints, but a combination of 3D printed optical lenses and simple colour blocks; imagine a physical material that can inherently display dynamically, an invisible object that is informative, a hard object that feels soft... what would that future look like?

With Illusory Material, we propose to get away from surface limitations in object and industrial design by adding another dimension to the material interface. The technique used relies on several different functioning layers of material, with information embedded into each 3D pixel to create interactive objects. The designs consist of two basic layers: the top layer with lenticular lenses, and the colours or pattern embedded into a base layer. The technique can be used to create a variety of 3D lenticular designs, such as shifting patterns, interactive written content, and even touch-sensitive visual effects.

Illusory Material is our vision for the future of product design: playful, dynamic and highly customizable. The scope of this material is huge.

The studio has created a series of products that exemplify the possibilities of Illusory Material including Nseen, Loopop and Unream.

Nseen, a truly minimalist perfume bottle, appears entirely transparent until viewed from a particular angle. Only then can the essential information about the contents be read. This allows the freedom to design as if with pure glass.

Loopop is a prototype for lollipop moulds that suggest bringing more digital design to the physical world. The Loopop provides textural experiences and colour that can only be created with a digital skin. A small recreation in a lollipop, over 100 years since the sweets were invented, may lead to a big step in a playful childhood. Imagine the possibilities for play in the food industry with surfaces that can shift.

Unream is a lamp that demonstrates the possibilities for furniture and interior designers using Illusory Material. It is a daytime artefact and a night lamp covered by lenticular lenses, the object shows dynamic colours in different viewing angles. When walking past the object, it looks like a digital screen with ambient animation. With this design, the designers reimagined the relationship between human, space, and objects.

When thinking in a larger scale, even in our modern built-environment, interior expression is discretized into different elements to fit the function of the room. We use a single surface material, for example porcelain tiles, to keep the wetness in the bathroom. However, in nature, it is not static or binary. Nature is rich and dynamic. There is depth under the surface and richness in the material. In the future, Illusory Material and multi-material printing may breach the line between nature and artificial materials.

It's time for a change. Not a change from physical to digital – designers don't have to move the products or thinking from space to screen, or from 3D to 2D. Let's take what we can learn from digital design and apply it to product or industrial design. With Illusory Material, the designers appear to ignore the boundaries, to go past the limitations of traditional methodologies and manufacturing techniques. Not to push, chip away, break through, or climb over, but to fly over. Let's reframe how traditional designers think about new techniques – instead of saying a digital or computational tool is an ‘alternative’, let's say it's an open door.

by Jiani Zeng


The detail of Illusory Materialon complex parametric geometry: a multi-colour layer covered by transparent lenticular lenses that refract light colour to different viewing angles
The detail of Illusory Materialon complex parametric geometry: a multi-colour layer covered by transparent lenticular lenses that refract light colour to different viewing angles
The detail of Illusory Materialon complex parametric geometry: a multi-colour layer covered by transparent lenticular lenses that refract light colour to different viewing angles
Designers of Illusory Material: Jiani Zeng (right) and Honghao Deng (left)
Nseen: a minimalist perfume bottle that only displays critical product information at certain viewing angle
Loopop: a prototype of an interactive lollipop with seemingly dynamic digital skin
Loopop: a prototype of an interactive lollipop with seemingly dynamic digital skin
This article appeared in DAM77. Order your personal copy.