Scientists have developed robotic modules that can combine and change shape to create furniture that is both moveable and reconfigurable.
The modules, dubbed Roombots, are paving the way for rooms that can be changed between pre-programmed layouts at the touch of a button.
Within decades, the vast majority of the world’s population is likely to be living in urban areas, and with space at a premium, a technology that enables easy switching of a room’s use is likely to be highly prized.
“Eventually, all you’ll need to do is program the layout of a bedroom or a conference room, then let the modules do the work,” explained Auke Ijspeert, head of the Biorobotics Laboratory at the École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) in Switzerland, where the robots were developed.
Each Roombot module is 22cm (8.6in) long and has the appearance of two jumbo dice stuck together. Inside a wireless connection, battery and three motors provide three angles for each module to twist on, enabling a range of movement.
Modules can connect to each other to create larger structures using retractable claws.
These claws can also be used to connect to non-robotic items of furniture fitted with special connecting panels, either to incorporate them into larger structures or to move them around.
The Roombots’ ability to move future has also led its designers to suggest that it could be developed as an aid for the elderly or disabled.
“It could be very useful for disabled individuals to be able to ask objects to come closer to them, or to move out of the way,” added Ijspeert.
Robotic technology is likely to play an increasing role in the care of the elderly, particularly with an ageing population in many western countries.
Technologies that allow people to stay in their own home for longer are likely to be favoured, and the Roombots could provide the perfect mix of care and independence that is required.
The Roombots is a technology that is very much in its infancy, although the effectiveness of the prototype version suggests that it holds significant potential.
“We designed the Roombots elements in such a way that they blend into the background of a room and make the users’ lives easier, while maintaining a certain aesthetic quality,” said Ijspeert.”We’re open to any possibility.”
At present EPFL has challenged French school children to come up with ideas for the technology, with favoured entries including modular sound and lighting equipment and roving flower pots.
Work on the Roombots is still ongoing, and the team is currently focused on refining the technology, including improving and speeding up the movement of groups of Roombots and working on the algorithms used to form different structures.
Images courtesy of EPFL.