Outfit missing that final touch? Try Rovables: pocket-sized robots that live on your clothes.
The bots, developed by a team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Stanford University, look like miniature cars with a custom-designed circuit board for a roof. With the help of magnetic wheels that pinch the fabric, they can roam freely up and down clothing for 45 minutes at a stretch, stopping in place to pose as a brooch or a bracelet.
“I’ve never actually seen a robot that can independently drive itself around your clothing,” says Rebeccah Pailes-Friedman, an associate professor at the Pratt Institute, New York.
But the robots aren’t just there to make you look cool. At this week’s User Interface Software and Technology Symposium in Tokyo, the team described how Rovables could also have practical uses as sensors, digital displays, or for tactile feedback.
“We envision that future wearable technology will move around the human body, and will react to its host and the environment,” write the authors. If wearables can move, they say, that gives them the freedom to find the best spot for a given task. For example, a health monitor could move to your wrist to take your pulse but duck out of view when it’s not needed.
In one demonstration, two Rovables snap together on the chest to form a makeshift name tag. In another, they gently tap the wearer’s wrist, perhaps to remind her of something. The bots also care for themselves by zipping over to a wearable charger when their batteries run low.
In the future, the researchers imagine that Rovables might shrink to the size of a fingernail. Picture lots of robots scurrying around your clothes on a programmed routine: onto your limbs to track your movements at the gym, up to your neck to let you take an incoming call, then over to your back to flash lights while you bike home from work in the dark.
Pailes-Friedman says the way the sensors adjust to the body is particularly interesting. “I do a lot of work with biosensing and that’s something that’s a constant battle,” she says. “Just think about the different sizes and shapes and performance abilities of different bodies. It’s vast, and there’s no way an off-the-shelf product can adjust itself to a person to get the results you need. This solves the problem.”
Sabine Seymour, a professor of fashionable technology at The New School in New York City, says that many in the field have been intrigued by the idea of technology that can “augment or enhance what we wear in our interface with our bodies but then also with our environment.”
Projects like Rovables, she says, open up possibilities for new applications that might not have even have crossed the creators’ minds yet. “A garment has not just one function of covering us. It has so many more functions that are becoming very appealing.”