Robotic Technologies Could Transform Living, One Square Foot at a Time

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By Jacob Bourne

Ori Systems, based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, wants to improve the livability of small housing spaces, even those with less than 300 square feet, through the use of robotic furniture.

Research behind the robotic systems was first conducted at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab, founded in 1985 to promote graduate level research into technology that transcends the confines of academic disciplines as a way to assist humanity adapt to the future. Media Lab researchers Hasier Larrea, Daniel Goodman, Oier Ariño and Phillip Ewing worked on the “CityHome” project to develop strategies for “living large in a tiny space” from 2011 until they graduated in 2015.  Ori Systems co-founder Larrea then partnered with Potrero Hill-based fuseproject designer, Yves Béhar, to develop their products, testing the systems with Airbnb renters.

“We wanted to see how we could bring robotics into real estate and architecture,” said Larrea. “We asked; how can we use technology to make spaces more efficient and intelligent?”

The CityHome researchers identified a need to think differently about residential architecture given increasing global urbanization. Population growth, coupled with more people moving from rural areas to cities, has led to rising rents and displacement of working class people, youth, the elderly, the disabled and singles. Some have been priced-out of real estate markets; others have downsized to smaller, more affordable, living spaces.

According to United Nations’ statistics, by 2050 the world’s urban centers will grow by an estimated 2.5 billion people. The California Department of Finance forecasts that the state’s population will swell to 51.7 million by 2060. For Larrea, this unprecedented urban concentration presents a host of new problems that haven’t been addressed by the real estate industry.

In What if Furniture Had Superpowers, which Larrea presented for TEDx Cambridge, he claimed that for millennia living spaces have been designed predominantly for specific, single-purpose, pre-ordained functions that end up unused most of the time. While Larrea’s assertion may have a weak basis – for most of human history small dwellings hosted multiple functions, such as cooking, cottage industries, and animal husbandry – urban growth may necessitate a doubling of housing stock over the next decade; status-quo building designs could contribute to intensified use of high rises, crowding, lower housing affordability, and reduced livability in major cities.

The amount of square footage largely determines real estate costs; downsizing to smaller spaces appears to be the only recourse for many people. According to Larrea, architectural robotic technology would reduce the need for space by eliminating single-function rooms.  “We want to change the paradigm of how we think about spaces. We usually think of how best to adapt to living spaces, but we want to liberate people from that. We want spaces to adapt to us,” Larrea said.

Ori Systems got its name from “origami,” the Japanese art of paper folding. The company has developed units that transform to different living configurations at the push of a button. The technology is equipped with pre-set features, and is compatible with smartphones. The units can change a room’s functionality from office areas to sleeping quarters, and to configurations for entertainment and social gatherings with virtually no effort on the part of the dweller.  “Right now, the mindset is that square footage is the magic number; more square footage is seen as being better, but with this you can make 300 square feet function like 900 square feet,” explained Larrea.

Benjamin Kimmich, chief executive officer of AVAVA Systems, designs and builds pre-fabricated, detached, living spaces, ranging from 264 to 480 square feet, that’re customizable and feature sustainable materials. Kimmich is familiar with other architectural robotic technologies, but views the Ori Systems products as more promising given their appealing designs and the versatility they offer as stand-alone systems that could be added post-construction.

“We have a floor plan that visualizes bedroom furniture. We’d have to imagine what a furniture plan looks like, and we would draw a specific floor plan around this type of furniture. It’s definitely something we would look into as it seems to fit with our own design values,” offered Kimmich.

For Kimmich, a particular challenge for small-space living is that it’s not always feasible to entertain guests for dinners or parties, especially in rooms that’re only 300 square feet. Ori Systems products not only have the capability to make spaces functionally much larger, but the technology can make home social gatherings stimulating by fueling conversation around these innovations and providing architectural interest.

“More and more people young people are going to want to get into home buying,” Kimmich added. “As the economy is coming back, more people want to stop renting and get into the micro-home market.”

Larrea emphasized that Ori Systems is the brains, muscle, and heart behind this innovative technology, rather than just a furniture company that makes living space accessories. The products are being tested by real estate developers in Seattle, Boston and Washington, D.C., and should be widely available next year.

“I hope between the prototype phase and market that it all goes well,” expressed Kimmich. “I love that they’re working on this.”