Robot furniture could be used to help the elderly

CNN Photo: Robot furniture

CNN) — Imagine that the chair you’re sitting on became a sofa on demand as the day moved from light to dark. Or if all your furnishings could move out of your way as you walk through a room. These thoughts could one day become reality through research being conducted at theSwiss Federal Institute of Technology (EPFL).

The EPFL biorobotics lab is developing self-configurable robotics known as “Roombots,” which can merge with materials and furnishings to create adaptable furniture for the home and office.

“It’s a bit of a science-fiction project in my lab to create intelligent furniture which can change shape and functionality,” explains lab director Auke Ijspeert. “We envisage the Roombots moving and combining to create a diversity of elements including tables and chairs.” The goal is to create furniture that can be re-used in multiple ways.

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Designs would consist of Roombot modules — which resemble two dice stuck together, and contain a battery, three motors for movements and pivoting, and a wireless connection. Each module is just 22cm long and the team imagine just 10 of them could combine to build a broad range of furniture. “The Roombots would be coupled with more passive materials such as a table top or cushion to create the end results,” says Ijspeert.

However, the team’s immediate goals are to create mobile furniture to assist the elderly and those with reduced mobility. “Let’s say an elderly person is using a walker, the furniture could have modules attached for it to move out of the way in a cluttered apartment or have a stool follow the person and remain close by,” describes Ijspeert.

For now, the team have managed to enable a few modules to interact, coordinated by algorithms on a PC, but they plan to improve human-robot interactions by either embedding cameras to track where users are or using voice recognition for people to instruct their furniture.

Further hopes lie in using tablets to display a room virtually, with people using augmented reality to then move and place furnishings as they desire. “Eventually we want less and less human interaction to have a more fluid transition of furniture,” says Ijspeert.

Designs aren’t limited to the home and could be applied to the workplace to create high-end conference rooms that reconfigure according to functionality, and eventually anywhere, with people creating their own uses for the building blocks.

“What I really hope is to provide Lego blocks for people to find their own use such as artists or designers,” says Ijspeert.

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