Robots As Furniture?

A team of Swiss researchers has created robots that self-assemble into tables and chairs—but they could also be used to help the elderly and disabled.

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"Roombots" could change the way we build furniture. Biorobotics Laboratory, EPFL

Planning the menu for a dinner party in a tiny apartment can be far easier than making sure guests have a place to sit: Many apartment dwellers simply don’t have the luxury of a full dining set and a comfy couch for movie nights.

But a new system in development at the Biorobotics Laboratory (BioRob) at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology could mean people in cramped living spaces no longer need to make those compromises.

The project, called Roombots, is a system of modular robots that can assemble (and reassemble) themselves into various pieces of furniture. A full-size couch or bench, for example, could break apart into six dining chairs; a squat coffee table could build itself up into a proper dining table.

It’s not the first time researchers have built robots that can put themselves together. Engineers have been experimenting with modular robots for years. Most recently, a team at MIT showcased M-Blocks, a system of magnetic cubes aimed at turning robots from unitaskers into adaptive multitaskers.

Unlike previous attempts, though, the Roombots system can use passive, non-robotic parts. The passive components can be large, stationary pieces of furniture, such as a wall or a tabletop, or four-inch cubes; the active modules, which measure about 8.5 inches across, are what make the bots come to life.

The modules consist of two articulating spheres, containing three motors, a battery and a wireless radio. The spheres have sets of claw-like connectors on the outside of the modules, which allow them to grab onto one another or link up with passive parts.

The most recent Roombots demonstrations showcase base-level functionality. A set of four modules can move a small table across a room, while a set of three can reconfigure cubes from a tripod to a snake. The connectors, however, are limited by the amount of weight they can handle without bending.

Though it hasn’t been said explicitly, it appears that existing furniture can also be retrofitted with Roombots connectors. The table in the demonstration, for instance, looks like a simple Ikea side table.

Currently, the motors inside active Roombots modules allow them to roll across the floor individually or as a group. A string of modules, for instance, can induce a spin that helps them roll, as a unit, across the floor like a log.

While there’s plenty of flash in the Roombots demo to tempt apartment dwellers of the future, the researchers’ goal is far more altruistic. They want the system to be used primarily as a way to assist the elderly or disabled. A Roombots table, for instance, could move a person’s glass of water closer to where he or she is sitting; a dining chair could pull itself out and push itself back in. Roombots might also configure themselves to help those with limited mobility sit, stand up or lie down.

But the researchers have a lot to figure out before that’s possible. First, they must refine the algorithms that govern how Roombots move (at the moment, their movements are somewhat limited). The team is also exploring other forms of locomotion that will allow modules to climb on and around one another, allowing for faster transitions between configurations. While the current motors are capable of such tasks, the team must refine the bots' logic to allow them to decide how to re-arrange on their own.

There’s also the matter of control. Researchers currently manipulate Roombots via a Bluetooth connection. They’ve also mocked up a system that lets researchers control structures with gestures using a Microsoft Kinect. Ideally, the system would pair wirelessly with a tablet application, but that software is still in development.

Despite all the challenges ahead, Roombots have already captured the imagination of many robotics fans across the web (the Terminator comparisons appear to be unavoidable).  The team will continue to refine the system over the coming months and years—and it could be up to 20 years before the system is refined enough for consumer use—but ultimately, researchers hope Roombots will become the LEGO bricks of smart furniture.  

For now, the concept offers a glimpse of what it could look like for anyone—from artists to designers—to develop their own take on hyper-functional furniture.