For most people in 2015, “one device that can do it all” is a tablet that also has a keyboard. For interaction designers at MIT, it means a shape-shifting soft robot that switches from phone, to watch, to flashlight, to charging cable.
The device is called Lineform, and it’s detailed in a new paper by MIT Tangible Media Group’s Ken Nakagaki and Sean Follmer, along with the group’s director, Hiroshi Ishii. Its name stems from its resting shape: A line made up of dozens of small servo motors controlled by an Arduino Mega, and covered in a black skin of spandex embedded with touch sensors. It looks like a lumpy stuffed worm at rest, but its internal “organs” are what give it the power to shift shapes in seconds.
The question behind Lineform is simple: Could a single device replace the dozens of electronics we keep with us for different purposes? Nakagaki and Follmer call it an “actuated curve interface,” and say they envision different styles of Lineforms that could pair with “flexible displays as next generation mobile devices, which can display complex information, provide affordances on demand for different tasks, and constrain user interaction.”
In other words, they imagine Lineform could replace a lot of the hardware we need for interacting with the world today — the keyboards, the phones, the cables, and so on — acting like a plug-and-play interface that could transform based on how you need to interact at a given moment.
For example, Lineform can wrap around your wrist and remind you of meetings with a simple tap, not unlike a smartwatch. It can curl up into a touch-sensitive keypad, sans actual keys. It can curve itself into a hand-friendly “phone” shape. It can wiggle, shake, and tap to convey when you’re getting a message, or serve as a simple cable connector when you need one. Plug-in additions, like lightbulbs, add even more functions. It can even be used to model geometry in real space while recording those shapes in 3D paper space:
Of course, MIT’s working model is extremely low-res — it’s not as if you could start using Lineform today. That said, it’s a surprisingly functional prototype considering what they’re asking it to do, demonstrating just how advanced soft robotics are today.
But there’s actually at least one downside to how quickly Lineform can shift its strange, worm-like body: It scares people. In their paper, the trio describe how a demo day with members of the public: “One initial observation is that the larger LineFORM can startle users when it quickly changes form.”
Even for harmless soft robots, the uncanny valley is wide and deep.