You know what's wrong with furniture? It just sits there. But what if your table could bring you a banana and coffee when you're hungover? What if, like an enchanted Beauty and the Beast castle full of spirited ottomans, your chair could anticipate your need to sit?
Swarms of responsive robots that can transform into any kind of furniture at will is exactly what a team of roboticists at the École Polytechnique Fédérale in Switzerland has been trying to accomplish for the past seven years. They've created four pairs of robot "Roombot" blocks that can organize themselves into pretty any much shape desired, and this September they'll start honing the technology for people in assisted living facilities. For those with limited mobility, a table that brings meds or prevents a fall could mean unprecedented independence.
Right now, each of the Roombot pairs, which can swivel and attach themselves to various surfaces, costs around $2,000. They run on lithium polymer batteries and can zip around for about an hour without recharging. But part of the challenge going forward will be to see if the team can reduce the cost. Switzerland's National Science Foundation will be funding the Biorobotics' lab three-year investigation into developing the technology for the elderly.
Another major challenge will be finding the best way for humans to interact with the shape-shifting Roombots themselves. The researchers are exploring several options, including tablet interfaces, augmented reality, gesture recognition, and speech recognition, explains Massimo Vespignani, a PhD student working under professor Auke Jan Ijspeert in the university's biorobotics lab.
The individual Roombots are about the size of fat grapefruits, but one day they could be much smaller. Vespignani and his fellow researchers are investigating ways for the bots to communicate among themselves, like bacteria. In a hundred years, maybe the individual units will be so small as to be microscopic—and instead of summoning 10 friendly robots from different corners of the room, a person could summon something as nebulous and numerous as an army of technological spores.