MIT Researchers Are 3D-Printing High-Tech Hair

It could be used for everything from customized paintbrushes to moving objects in certain patterns.

Cilllia / Photo by MIT Media Lab

Cilllia / Photo by MIT Media Lab

Hair isn’t just for your head anymore. Researchers at the MIT Media Lab are 3D-printing strands, and opening up a world of 3D-printed possibility.

Printing hair is revolutionary, because—in addition to being incredibly delicate—each strand has unique properties and can be customizable, says Jifei Ou, a Ph.D. student at the MIT Media Lab Tangible Media Group and the lead author of the paper.

These unique properties make hair difficult to model digitally, translate to the printer, and then produce. Ou and his fellow researchers, however, have found a way to bypass that process. They created Cilllia, a computer program that maps the hair and lets users adjust its density, thickness, and angle, without having to create a model for each strand. The printer then creates the map of hair in minutes. If each strand was modeled individually, it’d take hours.

“3D printers nowadays have potential to change the way we design materials, yet we are still mostly using it to print static objects like plastic cups,” Ou said in an interview with Mental Floss. “We aim to create programmable materials.”

“The structure is very impressive in regards to surface quality—it hasn’t been seen in 3D prints yet,” adds Gershon Dublon, a Ph.D. student in the MIT Media Lab Responsive Environments Group.

Could Cilllia hair someday adorn your head? Possibly, Ou says, but at this stage, the team is looking at other functions. That could mean Velcro-like adhesives, paintbrushes with customized strokes, hair-adorned jewelry (seriously), and more.

Cilllia can also be programmed to vibrate, which serves an entirely different purpose. Objects placed on the hair move with the strands, allowing engineers to shift them in specific patterns and paths.

One possible application is grabbing your attention when your phone rings on silent. When the phone vibrates, the hair moves and triggers an additional object—in the video below, a windmill—which notifies the user that their phone is receiving a text, call, or email.

So what’s next? Ou and Dublon say the lab is focused on research and exploration, from fine-tuning vibration to printing different types of structures. To learn more, check out this video: