hundreds of billions.

"On the software front, we've made great strides in the last year and a half or so -- identifying ways to form shapes and route power and start to control some of these devices -- but we have a long way left to go," Mowry said. "The software is a key challenge. In fact, the software is more difficult than the hardware."

Trek Tech

For fans of Star Trek: The Next Generation, catoms, 3-D fax machines and dynamic physical rendering sound a lot like the grand fantasy playground that is the starship Enterprise.

On the TV series, crewmembers frequented what they called the Holodeck, a room where lifelike holograms engaged users in whatever scenario they imagined. Star Trek fans are known to pine for the gadgets and gizmos imagined by the show's writers -- none more so than the Holodeck.

"It's not far off," Mowry said. "In the case of the Holodeck, you'd imagine constructing an entire interactive environment. At least initially we think of having similar environments in multiple places, and then constructing a replica of the person with whom you are having a conversation. Ultimately it's along the right lines."

As the researchers continue working, they must figure out pesky issues, like how to power the things, how to get the hardware down to the desired size, and a million other details. Fortunately they have ideas about how to solve most of the problems. A solution currently in play is to power a vat in which the catoms are stored, with a direct connection between the vat and the finished object.

Since the beginning, they've referred to the rendering of catoms as claytronics -- essentially the molding of electronic "clay" into the most realistic artificial replication possible. Although the final product is a long way off, the name is especially apt considering Mowry says all it will take to reach the next level is molding a simple geometric shape.

"Once we have four real units, and one of them can crawl on top of the other one and form a pyramid, I think you'll see a tremendous number of groups want to get involved," Mowry predicted. "I think our expectation is there isn't one group that is going to solve this problem, but rather we are starting an area in which many people will get onboard once they realize it's as doable as we think it is."

Chad Vander Veen  |  Editor, FutureStructure

Chad Vander Veen is the editor of FutureStructure.com