AWE Robotic Wall Reconfigures Itself Into Workspace, Lounge

The age of robotic furniture is upon us.

2 min read
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The video session at the IEEE/RSJ International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems last month opened with a bit of chaos. The tables and chairs in the room were set up in board-meeting style, taking too much space and making it hard for attendees to face the screen. Eventually the tables were moved and the mass of people crowded in the doorway was able to come in and bring more chairs.

Which made me wonder, Where's the robotic furniture?!

It may be here soon. One of the videos presented at the session featured a robotic wall called AWE (animated work environment), developed at Clemson University's school of architecture and department of electrical and computer engineering.

Presenting the AWE Project was Keith Evan Green, the director of the school’s program of intelligent materials and systems for architecture. His opener: "We're in the business of reconfiguring rooms," he said, "which we just did here manually." 

He explained that the segmented wall can be rearranged to make a single space that is useful for working at a desk, giving presentations, even watching football. "The idea is for multiple people to convene in one place" with different objects and uses. 

The eight-degree-of-freedom robowall, powered by electric motors, has multiple touch-screen displays and mobile desk units. Users can select six different configurations and fine-tune them by gesturing at proximity sensors. 

Their original idea for the contraption's design came from studying the movement of an elephant’s trunk, though for their current prototype they went to a "hyper redundant" system more like the links in a watch's wristband. "Out of cowardice," Green said when asked, because they wanted to be sure it worked. But Green and collaborator Ian Walker are currently working on "continuum robotics," more like that trunk.

Maybe at IROS next year Green will wave his hand and the hotel conference room will morph into a cool movie theater?

Video: AWE Project

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The Bionic-Hand Arms Race

The prosthetics industry is too focused on high-tech limbs that are complicated, costly, and often impractical

12 min read
A photograph of a young woman with brown eyes and neck length hair dyed rose gold sits at a white table. In one hand she holds a carbon fiber robotic arm and hand. Her other arm ends near her elbow. Her short sleeve shirt has a pattern on it of illustrated hands.

The author, Britt Young, holding her Ottobock bebionic bionic arm.

Gabriela Hasbun. Makeup: Maria Nguyen for MAC cosmetics; Hair: Joan Laqui for Living Proof

In Jules Verne’s 1865 novel From the Earth to the Moon, members of the fictitious Baltimore Gun Club, all disabled Civil War veterans, restlessly search for a new enemy to conquer. They had spent the war innovating new, deadlier weaponry. By the war’s end, with “not quite one arm between four persons, and exactly two legs between six,” these self-taught amputee-weaponsmiths decide to repurpose their skills toward a new projectile: a rocket ship.

The story of the Baltimore Gun Club propelling themselves to the moon is about the extraordinary masculine power of the veteran, who doesn’t simply “overcome” his disability; he derives power and ambition from it. Their “crutches, wooden legs, artificial arms, steel hooks, caoutchouc [rubber] jaws, silver craniums [and] platinum noses” don’t play leading roles in their personalities—they are merely tools on their bodies. These piecemeal men are unlikely crusaders of invention with an even more unlikely mission. And yet who better to design the next great leap in technology than men remade by technology themselves?

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