Imagine an ethernet-cable. All of a sudden the connectors on both sides morph into a solid cube. Then one end morphs into a male USB connector while the other side morphs into a female FireWire connector…
All kinds of connectors would be possible – a universal adaptor.
I have two approaches in mind.
1) Know these things? I imagine a 3x3cm field with thousands of those, super-thin, 2cm long all of them, sitting at base on a circuit board. Each can separately be positioned in y-axis (from 0cm to 2cm reaching out) and can be set to a specific value of electrical conductivity (from isolated to full conductivity). With that setup you can theoretically mimic any kind of 3D shape within a 3x3x2cm space. Like a reusable 3D print.
Through the individual regulation of conductivity you could bundle hundreds of the superthin-pins into one of the four USB pins for instance and set hundreds of superthin-pins around this specific bundle to zero conductivity.
I don’t know if there is a material (semi-metallic?) that allows for that. Maybe each superthin-pin needs to be sitting within an insulating tube that can move up and down the y-axis independently from its superthin-pin, to cover or uncover it’s metallic inside? Probably very challenging (nano-)engineering required here.
2) Another image i have in mind is kind of like an inflatable picklock from a James Bond movie. A tiny lengthy ballon that inflates in the key hole, sensitive enough to press all the small mechanical bolts and thereby unlock the door. Something like that but for connectors. The surface of this thing would be electro-sensitive and can “analyze” the pins and derive from that the requirements of conductivity-channels that the inflated (and thus stable fitting) connector has to provide. Little mechanical “robot arms” from the circuit board (on top of which the ballon-thingy is sitting) would rise in the inside of the newly inflated connector-shape and place their “heads” to the previously analyzed pin-coordinates on the outside of the surface.
Alternatively i could imagine (without having any idea if there is such a substance) a gas-substrate within the ballon-thing that allows for laser-rays, coming from the circuit board, to basically divide the balloon-internal space into conducting and insulating cells. Those will transport the signals from the external pins to the internal circuit board.
In both cases then there would be a bundle of 50 (? enough to cover all possible parallel-signal-transporting needs of all possible connectors) glas fibres sitting on the other side of the circuit board that will make up the cable-part of the universal self-adapting adaptor.
Some sort of central processing unit in the middle of the cable will arrange the correct flow of signals from one “molded” connector to the other. It’ll have a database of all current existing connectors (or maybe it doesn’t even need that if the pin-analysation-engine is computing on firm causal grounds, because than the electrical requirements might be obvious?) and can compute the requirements for signal-flow/adaption for each combination of connectors.
The physical cable-connection between the two self-adapting connector-heads can be interrupted by a wireless node that will “continue the physical cable” via bluetooth or infrared > finally a wireless option for any kind of cable/adaptor.
The processing unit in the middle of the cable could be built attachable to both cable-ends via a magnetic clip (like Apple’s MagSafe power connector) and there could be space for a third, fourth… cable. In that way splitter adaptors or Hub’s can be modelled. Obviously the processing unit will have to watch out and warn-about/block critical or even destructive types of connections (like incoming signals from both sides for instance instead of one sending and one receiving end).
There would be a little camera sitting on each circuit board which can take a peek at the external connector that the cable is being held against. It would automatically recognize the design and the connector can start morphing from its raw-form into the required 3D-shape to fit the external one: self-adapting.