Programmable Hair Created With 3-D Printing Breakthrough

Cilllia - 3D Printed Hair Structures for Surface Texture, Actuation and Sensing Tangible Media Group/MIT Media Lab
Cilllia - 3D Printed Hair Structures for Surface Texture, Actuation and Sensing Tangible Media Group/MIT Media Lab

Printing lifelike hair is a new frontier in 3-D printing — and researchers have just discovered a more efficient way to do it. The Media Lab at MIT has developed innovative software that can precisely generate the angle, thickness, density and height of hair by the thousands.

The process, fueled by a software platform called Cilllia, now takes minutes instead of hours and doesn't require hordes of computer-crashing data.


Specifically, the MIT team led by researcher Jifei Ou has figured out how to get around one of 3-D printing's most onerous obstacles: the amount of data required to make thousands of strands of 3-D hair or fur would overwhelm most CAD software applications. Previously, drawing thousands of strands of hair meant hours of patience and tons of computing power. It was done using traditional computer-aided design (CAD) software and required the user to draw thousands of individual hairs on a computer.

To get around this problem, the MIT team created hair follicles using individual pixels — the term is short for "picture element" and refers to the small, colored dots that make up images on computer displays — in the shape of a cone.

With the help of image editing software, researchers used colored pixels for different parts of each hair's design: red for the X-axis, green for the Y-axis and blue for height. Then they built a 3-D software program Cilllia to translate this algorithm. Cilllia can change the angle, thickness, density and height of hairs in a 3-D model by using a slider tool to manipulate the values. Now, thousands of follicles can be created in minutes instead of hours.

Researchers have used Cilllia to create and print everything from fine soft hair similar to the cilia follicles in the human nose to coarse paintbrush bristles. They did this on both flat and curved surfaces, primarily exploring the way hair could be used for adhesion, sensation and actuation.

A batch of 3-D-printed hair was made that could adhere to Velcro-like structures. Researchers also printed hair in the shape of a rabbit. The hare's hair, equipped with LED lights, could be programmed to sense when it was stroked and cause the lights to activate. In addition, researchers were able to print hair that could move objects using vibration.

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An example of 3-D printed hair created using the Cilllia program.
Tangible Media Group/MIT Media Lab

Rather than keep the software's machinations under wraps, the MIT team plans to open-source the program. The move will allow others to test the technology's boundaries, as well as find additional designs and uses for 3-D printed hair.