Self-Assembling Transformer Furniture Robots Put Ikea to Shame

Roombots can self-assemble into a chair and move across the room with you in it, and then reassemble into a table that delivers you a glass of water.

Image: Biorobotics Laboratory, EPFL

As far as shape-shifting robots go, morphing from a table to a bench is about the least exciting transformation there is. Still, this adaptive furniture puts your regular furniture to shame. It can self-assemble into a chair and move across the room with you in it, and reassemble into a table that delivers you a glass of water.

At least, it's getting close to being able to do all that. The people-carrying bit is still proof of concept, but the autonomous furniture bots can move around freely and self-assemble, and change shape like incredibly smart and practical Legos.

A team at the EPFL Biorobotics Laboratory in Switzerland is developing these multipurpose robotic building blocks, called Roombots. The lab has a new video and research paper out (hat tip to Gizmodo for spotting it) demonstrating the latest advances in the technology.

"We'd like, for instance, to make stools that could move around in your apartment, and if they meet another stool they could connect and make a bench, and the bench could later become a table," says EPFL's Auke Jan Ijspeert in the video.

Each Roombot module has three motors and "connectors" and "grippers" to attach and detach to other modules or pieces or objects in your apartment. One of the early applications for the technology is assistive living for the elderly or people with disabilities. "That means for instance a table approaching the person to bring medicine or a glass of water," Ijspeert said.

The project is part of a larger field of study dubbed "roomware." It looks at increased interaction between people and their living spaces, either in the form of augmented reality, ubiquitous computing, or, tangible computers—like MIT Media Lab's responsive furniture project, Transform, which changes shape on demand based on your touch.

The Roombot is controlled by machine learning algorithms modeled off animals' neural networks for movement, according to a research paper from the EPFL team. The smart machine picks up sensory data from its environment, learns the specific needs of its user, and transforms accordingly. It's like the opposite of the Ikea DIY assembly nightmare. (In fact, I'm pretty sure that's a beige Ikea end table in the video crawling across the room.)

Image: Biorobotics Laboratory, EPFL

Down the line, the researchers figure the versatile bots could perform any number of household tasks we probably assumed would always be static, like an arm oscillating a fan, or transporting objects around.

They describe the future applications as "multifunctional and assistive robotic furniture that can interact with users, help them recover from a fall, monitor their health, help them transfer between different positions (laying/sitting/standing), help them manipulate objects.”

And when you don't need the shape-shifting autonomous blocks for anything? You're not stuck with a pile of useless robots scattered on the floor; they'll assemble to create a static structure like a wall or a box. So I guess there is something even more mundane than a table.