Shape-Shifting Blob Robots

A prototype version of the soft morphing blob robot.

I recently heard about a robot being developed jointly by iRobot and researchers at the University of Chicago that sounds like science fiction come to life. The concept is a soft, shape-shifting robot that moves by something called “jamming skin enabled locomotion.” Check out the video that the researchers have released that does a much better job than I can of explaining the ideas behind the technology and showing their prototype in action (to skip the details and get to the action, scroll to 1:50):

I am excited about this project for several reasons. First of all, there are some very interesting potential applications enabled by the robot’s ability to morph its shape and traverse complex terrain. Such a device could squeeze through small holes or cracks and be an extremely valuable tool for rescue operations (think collapsed buildings, for instance) as well as national security purposes (I would guess that this is why DARPA is funding the project).

Second of all, I think the project is a great example of a concept that is captivating enough to generate excitement in people who wouldn’t normally care about advances in robotics. The idea is so fanciful and yet at the same time easy to understand that it has a way of capturing the imagination (for me, at least). And anything that gets more people interested in science, technology and engineering is good news in my book.

Tesla to Drive to Detroit Auto Show

Tesla Motors is exhibiting its Roadster Sport next month at the Detroit Auto Show. They are “shipping” their car by driving it the 2700 miles between Los Angeles and Detroit. The cool thing is they are going to drive the car 2700 miles without having to use a single gallon of gasoline. It’s true that they will need to recharge their batteries from the grid every couple of hundred miles, but at least their power “could” be coming from a renewable energy source like wind or solar. It’s a start.

In general I love the idea of electric cars. They’re clean, they’re quiet, and they use electric-motors, which means high low-end torque and great acceleration!

I’d also like to congratulate Laurel, one of our former interns. She’s now an employee at Tesla Motors and has been chosen to drive one of the legs of the trip to Detroit. Have fun.

Here’s a link to the official website for the Tesla drive to Detroit: http://www.teslamotors.com/roadtrip/

Pocobor in Uganda

We recently returned from an amazing two week trip to Uganda, Africa! We were there deploying a handful of product prototypes for a field study and meeting our users face to face. The image above is the site of one of the deployments, which was a typical off-grid (no electricity) village home and business. It was an amazing hands on, user-centric design experience, which gave me the opportunity to identify and empathize with the end user. An incredible amount of information was exchanged and user behavior understood in a very short amount of time. From the first deployment on, opportunities and design changes have been swirling in my head. Now that we’re back in SF we’re ready for the next phase of the project, even as field data continues to trickle in.

I enjoyed experiencing the polarity of the bustling city and the quiet and peaceful country. The capital city, Kampala, was vibrant and alive with movement everywhere. The countryside was beautiful with more rolling green hills (and Matooke, the local green plantain) then I’ve ever seen. The people were incredibly welcoming, friendly, and hospitable, which made us feel immediately comfortable and at home in both the city and the country. I’d just recommend using extra caution when crossing the road; the pedestrian in Uganda has no right of way.


The electronics district in Kampala.


Does it get greener than this?