Traditional painting methods involve coating surfaces with pigments, inks and dyes to produce artistic images. In the 1960s, some artists experimented with light as a new painting medium.

The materials used by these artists had unique properties that allowed them to change their appearance based on the polarization of the light passing through them. When a material with this property is sandwiched between two polarizing filters, it appears to be colored, even though it is colorless.

Individuals can use a new design tool developed by MIT researchers to create polarized light mosaics that can be printed on cellophane to create data visualizations, passive light displays, mechanical animations, fashion accessories, educational science and design tools, and more.

Ticha Melody Sethapakdi, a Ph.D. electrical engineering and computer science student at MIT and a subsidiary of CSAIL, leads the use of regenerated cellulose to make Polagons. Polagons are machine-made color-changing mosaics that use polarized light to inform and delight.

Sethapakdi inspired artists such as Austine Wood Comarow, whose inventive “polage art” is based on the same principles of physics, whose polarized light mosaics are rather handcrafted.

The new Polagon computational design system enables a laser cutting and welding fabrication process with minimal user assembly. Users first import custom mosaic designs and the system calculates the feasible color palette based on the user’s cellophane stock. Users can create “distorting” mosaics that transition from one image to another by uploading multiple designs to the interface.

Then comes the logistics: Polagons optimizes the necessary constituent components for each scenario, such as the type and number of plates required. After uploading designs, experimenting with colors and visualizing color-changing behavior, the user can export the fabrication files and cut them into pieces with a laser cutter.

Cellophane has a property called birefringence, which means that when light passes through it, the speed of light differs depending on the angle of propagation. When the sheets are placed in a “sandwich” of two polarizers, the color of the material depends on its thickness and angle to the two polarizers. To create this effect, you need to rotate the image or polarizers, changing the angle of light propagation.

The team is interested in democratizing this art form and helping preserve something that may only be accessible to experienced individuals. They believe that 3D printing a birefringent material to access a more extensive palette and more control over the colors could be a possible solution to change the manufacturing process to support a constant way of building colors .

Sethapakdi said: “Because these designs are non-electronic, they might allow interesting underwater applications in the future, where you put these kinds of mosaics in places where it’s hard for electronics to stay. That’s the special thing here, that all these color-changing effects are mechanical. ”

Sethapakdi said: β€œIn creating this system, I was particularly interested in democratizing this art form and helping to preserve something that might only be accessible to experienced individuals. Suppose something happens to the creator of this layering principle, the family of Austine Wood Comarow. Does art die with them? If we had no way to maintain or continue that, we would lose something that would be very precious to the world. I think there’s a real benefit to building these systems that democratize niche art forms. We hope that this tool can expand the community of modern polarized light mosaicists. As we make this process accessible to a larger group of users, it can add new programmable material to the palette of options in [human-computer interaction].”

This tool will help grow the community of modern polarized light mosaic makers and add new programmable material to the palette of human-computer interaction options. The research will be presented at the 2023 Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI 2023).

The result shows that Polagons can be used for fashion, education and visualization with controlled color-changing behavior. Polagons can support hundreds of colors with just a few types of cellophane.

Magazine reference:

  1. Ticha Sethapakdi, Vivian Chan, et al. Polagons: design and fabrication of polarized light mosaics with user-defined color-changing behavior. Link to paper