Thumbles: a Touchscreen Interface Based on Little Mobile Robots

Small omnidirectional robots live on top of this screen

1 min read
Thumbles: a Touchscreen Interface Based on Little Mobile Robots
Photo: Patten Studio

Touchscreens are the physical interface of choice right now. This is fine, because touchscreens are versatile and portable, and we like them. Sometimes, however, we feel that they lack that satisfying tactile feedback we get from physical controls like buttons and knobs and joysticks.

Now an experimental interface called Thumbles wants to bring more tactile capability to the touchscreen. It features tiny little omnidirectional robots that live on top of a projected screen. By grabbing them and dragging them around as they try to drive around, you can experience a completely new type of physical interactivity.

What makes Thumbles unique is that the robots can move by themselves. They can provide force feedback, or dynamically form different kinds of physical controls, or act as virtual representations of things like molecules or mechanical structures.

The bots look like they're mostly 3D printed, and we imagine that it wouldn't be too difficult to set up something like this with little more than the robots, a webcam, a projector, and what is probably some reasonably clever software.

Thumbles is a prototype from Patten Studio, based in Brooklyn, N.Y., and it sounds like they'd be happy to make a system for you, if you ask nicely (and give them some money).

We're more than a little bit interested in what might happen if you were to extend this idea, except using a swarm of many many more robots that are much much smaller. Sort of a mobile smart pebble approach, which might lead to interactive interfaces that are "sculptable" out of microbots. Realistic? Maybe not. But we want one anyway.

[ Thumbles ] via [ Gizmodo ]

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Robot with threads near a fallen branch

RoMan, the Army Research Laboratory's robotic manipulator, considers the best way to grasp and move a tree branch at the Adelphi Laboratory Center, in Maryland.

Evan Ackerman

“I should probably not be standing this close," I think to myself, as the robot slowly approaches a large tree branch on the floor in front of me. It's not the size of the branch that makes me nervous—it's that the robot is operating autonomously, and that while I know what it's supposed to do, I'm not entirely sure what it will do. If everything works the way the roboticists at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL) in Adelphi, Md., expect, the robot will identify the branch, grasp it, and drag it out of the way. These folks know what they're doing, but I've spent enough time around robots that I take a small step backwards anyway.

This article is part of our special report on AI, “The Great AI Reckoning.”

The robot, named RoMan, for Robotic Manipulator, is about the size of a large lawn mower, with a tracked base that helps it handle most kinds of terrain. At the front, it has a squat torso equipped with cameras and depth sensors, as well as a pair of arms that were harvested from a prototype disaster-response robot originally developed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory for a DARPA robotics competition. RoMan's job today is roadway clearing, a multistep task that ARL wants the robot to complete as autonomously as possible. Instead of instructing the robot to grasp specific objects in specific ways and move them to specific places, the operators tell RoMan to "go clear a path." It's then up to the robot to make all the decisions necessary to achieve that objective.

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