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Hoberman Hopes to Leave Legacy of Ideas
You could be forgiven for thinking that Chuck Hoberman is a magician.

His creations, or transformable designs, play tricks on the eyes — and sometimes even mimic them.

His spheres expand outward, giving off the physics-defying appearance of something coming from virtually nothing. His transforming tetrahedrons change from pyramid to 12-point star to pyramid again, resembling nothing so much as giant pieces of origami. His domes open and close like the iris of an eye.

Chuck Hoberman

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Chuck Hoberman talked about transformable design at the Dec. 4 Colloquium series lecture. Credit: NASA/Joe Atkinson

Though much of his work is functional, Hoberman, who has a background in sculpture as well as engineering, likes to blur boundaries, infusing many of his creations with an artistic flair — the kind of artistic flair that makes people say "wow."

"The kind of art I'm interested in," he said, "is people look at it and go, 'How cool is that? Pretty cool.' "

Hoberman talked about the ways in which he melds artistry and functionality Dec. 4 at the Colloquium at NASA's Langley Research Center.

Though known in the design world for his large-scale projects, like the expanding video screen his firm, Hoberman Associates, designed for the rock band U2 or the expanding arch they created for the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics, Hoberman also refers to himself as "an accidental toy maker."

He fell into toy making in the early '90s when he was trying to figure out a way to build a business around his transformable structures. His first clients were science museums, who commissioned him to build a couple of large expanding spheres.

"At a certain point I started to notice that kids were screaming and shouting and absolutely engaged," he said. "It wasn't a dry, cold mechanism to them. It was some sort of a living form."

So Hoberman turned his sphere into a toy — one that's now become something of an icon. His design firm makes other toys as well, including the Boom-o-Ring, the Switch Pitch and the Brain Twist. All of them engage the mind.

"Something like the sphere," he said, "which is a fairly abstract object. It's not an action figure or a board game or a ball for sports. It's an interactive object. So kids make costumes out of them. They make houses out of them. They invent games."

In other words, they find functional uses for it.

One of Hoberman's most recent projects actually involves a functional application of his sphere — and it's about as far away from a child's toy box as you can imagine.

Hoberman has been working with Paul Bernhardt at the Naval Research Laboratory to develop a Precision Expandable Radar Calibration System (PERCS) — a satellite that's actually a Hoberman Sphere.

Once in orbit, the satellite would expand from about 1 meter to 10 meters and be used to calibrate ground-based radar systems.

Satellite. Radar. It may sound like a case of pure functionality, but Hoberman doesn't see it that way.

"If a 1-meter spherical cluster, gold or gold iridium — I don't even know the materials — is launched from a vehicle and blossoms open in space to become a 10-meter geodesic globe that circles the world and radar devices beam their signals off of it to tune their functionality — to me, it transcends a purely practical functional description," he said.

Art and function combined in a major way in Hoberman's work with the band U2. They commissioned his firm to develop a transformable video screen for their 360° tour.

In what Hoberman calls a "dream project" and a feat of "extreme engineering," he and his team designed a giant, 30-ton screen that could change size and shape, morphing from an elliptical video display the size of a tennis court to a 7-story high cone-shaped structure that could envelop the band as it extended down. In addition to that, it had to be fully transformable and deployable, and crews had to be able to set it up in six hours, and take it down in six, too.

"Structurally, we were building a 30-ton movable object and we were hanging it over Bono's head," he said.

No pressure, right? But wait. There's more. Time was a factor too. From concept to completion, Hoberman's team only had about a year to work on the screen. That's enough to cause a spike in anyone's blood pressure. But according to Hoberman, working with U2 was "fantastic" and "a whole lot of fun."

"It was a great experience," he said. "I was given an extraordinary opportunity to create a structure that broke a lot of boundaries in the artistic sense and in the engineering sense."

Given the broad range of projects Hoberman has worked on, it's easy to lose sight of the fact that there's a commonality to his work. It doesn't matter if it's a toy or a satellite or a giant video screen; the principles are the same. They're all transformable.

"They're different applications of those core ideas," he said.

And though Hoberman is only in his 50s, he's reached a point in his career where he's ready to see a new generation take his core ideas and run with them — something that's already happening at Harvard University's Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering.

There, Hoberman is working with Dr. William Shih, who is applying some of his transformable linkages at the DNA level.

It's an exciting project, but it's not just the project itself that excites Hoberman, it's seeing his design concepts applied in a new and unexpected way.

And hopefully, Hoberman says, projects like Shih's will spark "a lot of others to carry these ideas forward."

By: Joe Atkinson

The Researcher News
NASA Langley Research Center
Editor & Curator: Denise Lineberry
Executive Editor & Responsible NASA Official: Rob Wyman