March 26, 2012 at 3:02 PM ET
The Twist-O, a quirky expandable spherical toy, has inspired a team of engineers to design a 3-D structure that collapses in on itself. The breakthrough, they say, isn't just about fun and games: It could lead to new structures such as buildings with collapsible walls, high-tech drugs, and advanced robotics.
The new structure is a called a "buckliball" in a nod to buckyballs, the spherical all-carbon molecules whose name was inspired by the geodesic domes created by the architect-inventor Buckminster Fuller, according to the team from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University.
The buckliball is a hollow spherical object made of soft rubber and contains no moving parts. Instead, it has 24 carefully spaced dimples. When the air is sucked out of the buckliball with a syringe, thin ligaments forming columns between lateral dimples collapse.
As the thin ligaments buckle, thicker ligaments that form rows between the dimples undergo a series of movements the researchers refer to as a "cooperative buckling cascade."
MIT explains in a news release: "Some of the ligaments rotate clockwise, others counterclockwise – but all move simultaneously and harmoniously, turning the original circular dimples into vertical and horizontal ellipses in alternating patterns before closing them entirely."
This is likely a case where a picture and video are worth much more than words. The collapsed buckliball is in the upper right of this post. Watch the video clip above to see the toy and the ball in action.
The buckliball is the first morphable structure to incorporate buckling as something to be desired, according to MIT. Potential uses include a building with a collapsible roof or wall – perhaps something more high-tech than the retractable roof at Safeco Field where the Seattle Mariners play baseball.
Another potential use for such buckling structures might be a robotic arm that uses precisely engineered dimples at hinging points (joints) that bend when activated by a pressure signal.
For more, check out the paper on buckliballs published online today in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
John Roach is a contributing writer for msnbc.com. To learn more about him, check out his website and follow him on Twitter. For more of our Future of Technology series, watch the featured video below.