Flexible screens, wearable computers, conductive ink, wires that move like muscles: These are the materials that will make up the gadgets of the future, and they’re being dreamed up and developed in do-it-yourself hacker labs and garages all around the world.

Sure, large manufacturers are working on these kinds of materials, too, but openMaterials co-founder Catarina Mota says the real innovation is coming from the bottom up as makers, hackers, and DIY enthusiasts figure out how to do “the future” for themselves in their own home labs.

Smart materials have one or more properties that can be changed by external stimuli, such as temperature, moisture, a magnetic field, or an electric current. And these kinds of materials are changing how we think about hardware and what hardware is able to do.

At a hardware-hacking workshop sponsored by Make magazine today in Silicon Valley, Mota said she and a partner began looking for these kinds of smart materials for an art installation, but they ran into more hurdles than expected.

“We quickly realized the materials we wanted weren’t available in quantities or prices for makers like ourselves,” she said, noting that when they could get their hands on the materials, they couldn’t figure out how to use them, nor did they receive any instructions from the manufacturers, who were used to dealing with large-scale OEMs.

So, Mota concluded, she’d have to make the materials she wanted by herself.

“The only way to go about this was trial and error,” she said. “We’d make our best guess and change one thing at a time until we got the material to do what we wanted it to do.”

Eventually, the art installation fell by the wayside as Mota and her cohort became more and more fascinated by making and using these materials of the future. openMaterials is the result of their efforts, which include research and workshops on DIY smart materials.

Mota said that in 2009, she was only able to track down two or three manufacturers of smart materials. Today, there are many manufacturers of all sizes — and better still, the web is replete with information, instructions, and community resources for makers.

Here’s a gallery showing handmade smart materials and where you can find out more about them (or even learn how to make them yourself):

[vb_gallery id=449919]

Top image courtesy of luxorphoto, Shutterstock

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