Decoding Design

Wallbots: user responsive robotic walls

Posting in Architecture

Hong Kong based architect Otto Ng thinks that in the future, even walls will be automated. The designer answers a few questions about his design for walls that transform by themselves.

Lighting, temperature, security, and music are just some of the elements that home automation promises to streamline, so that in the future, we'll hardly have to walk across a room to make our homes comfortable. A Hong Kong based architect takes the idea one step further with his designs for walls that transform by themselves.

Otto Ng has designed and developed Wallbots, a responsive partition system that can move, resize, attach, and detach to create different sized spaces and accommodate different functions. The technology is beyond user controlled; it is user responsive.

The Wallbots use wheels to move around so there are no ceiling or floor tracks and no attachments to existing structure. The system collects real-time information like temperature, light, and time, and also analyzes the routine and behavior of inhabitants, including their social-network profile. The moving walls then adjust in width (from 1 meter to 1.5 meters) by stretching or compressing the folded, origami-like skin and mechanical skeleton. They also move by themsleves and communicate with other walls in the system wirelessly to transform a space as required.

The form of the Wallbots reminds me of the softwall, by molodesign, a modular partition system which uses a flexible honeycomb structure to expand and contract. The Wallbots, however, are dynamic and more substantial. Using a continuous feedback loop, the partitions remember previous positions to improve their predictive response. The technology is similar to that used in research by Cornell professor Ashutosh Saxena.

Ng elaborates on his design in an email exchange:

SmartPlanet: What do you see happening in future homes that made you want to design responsive walls?
Otto Ng: Technology advancement. Sensors and hardware are becoming more affordable and comprehensive than ever. The internet has become an integral part of everyone's social life. "Smart" elements including ultra-thin mega screen, Kinect and Siri are already available to us and will soon be embedded in every home electronics and daily commodity. It is exciting to see the integration of the virtual and physical environment is indeed happening. As an architect, I think it's contingent to predict and prepare for such integration and explore potentials of using Media as architectural Material and Form. For Wallbots, I attempted to fuse Media and Form.

SmartPlanet: When would the automatic functions kick in? Would the walls need to be placed and moved manually for an initial period?
Otto Ng: Unlike traditional practice, the architecture of Wallbots is not static. The Design Architect will be responsible to determine a set of parametric rules and configurations, rather than a single one, in response to different parameters.
The initial configurations will immediately adjust according to parametric changes.  The Wallbots will then learn and improve the pre-set configurations based on the results. The inhabitants always have the right to override auto-configurations.

SmartPlanet: What is the material of the folded skin?
Otto Ng: The skin could have any interior finishes, but to save energy for movement, for sure, the lighter the better. Within a set of wallbots, their finishes could be diverse to address different porosity and thickness requirement for light, privacy, airflow, sound and temperature. The skin works well with wood+rubber for the present working prototype.
The geometry I propose is a pleated system.  With a layer of translucent rubber embedded behind the fragments of finishes allow certain degree of movement while the skin expands or contracts. The rubber edges will be highlighted when light is emitted from the inside of a Wallbot.

SmartPlanet:
How would the walls respond to a person's social media profile?
Otto Ng: Social media provides information about mood, character, relationship, events and location data. For instance, the data can tell the Wallbots whether their occupants will go to a party that evening. With social media, the Wallbots will be able to distinguish if a visitor is a good friend or not.

Developed at MIT as part of the SENSEable City Lab, the Wallbots are manufactured at the University of Toronto’s Responsive Architecture at Daniels (RAD). Both labs examine how to take digital technologies out of the virtual world to create better physical environments and everyday objects.

See additional images of the Wallbots in the photo gallery.

Related on SmartPlanet: How to use robots in interior design

Images: courtesy Otto Ng

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Sun Kim

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Sun Joo Kim is an architect and creative consultant based in Boston. Her projects include design and master planning of museums, public institutions, hospitals, and university buildings across the U.S. She holds a degree from Carnegie Mellon University and is a member of the U.S. Green Building Council. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure