Last year, we hailed LineFORM—MIT's bizarre, snake-like robot—as the possible future of UI. The idea behind the device was deceptively simple: What if the integral building block of computing wasn't a rectangular block, like your smartphone, your tablet, or your laptop, but a robotic string of blocks that could transform its shape depending upon need? It could take on the basic form of a phone when you need to make a call, or morph into a wrist-worn fitness tracker when you're exercising, or any number of other form factors.
Now, the LineFORM has evolved. Meet the ChainFORM, a modular version of the original which also comes equipped with integrated sensors and a low-res display. The ChainFORM could also be infinitely expandable, in theory: You could add as many modular links as you want, transforming the chain on the fly from the most adaptive computer accessory ever to a flashy wearable exosuit that potentially augments your strength. The updates take it from a mechanical prototype to something more functional, resembling a usable gadget.
ChainFORM was created by Ken Nakagaki of MIT's Tangible Media Group, the previous designer of the LineFORM, alongside SensorTape creator Artem Dementyev of the Responsive Environments Group. Each ChainFORM module is a small robot link with actuators on each side, allowing it to twist and bend at any angle when attached to other modules. To grow the chain, you just snap on more modules. Right now, ChainFORM only supports 33 links, but that's just a limitation of the prototype based upon power draw. In theory—say, by giving each battery chain its own small battery pack—a ChainFORM chain could be made up of any number of individual links, each one of which also contains a number of LEDs and sensors, detecting things like pressure, touch, rotation, and more.
How do Nakagaki and Dementyev envision this expandable, adaptable technology actually being used? Right now, they see two major applications for the ChainFORM.
One is as an infinitely adaptable and extendable computer accessory. In this mode, depending upon the application, the ChainFORM could transform from a mouse-like control puck, to a keyboard-like input device, to a VoIP phone handset, to a second display. Think of the new MacBook Pro's TouchBar as a three-dimensional robot, and you've got a decent idea of what MIT's imagining here. The ChainFORM is just a prototype, and clunky in some ways, but it's still a fully-operable iteration of that vision, only in need of some finesse.
Like the LineFORM before it, Nakagaki and Dementyev imagine their ChainFORM being used as a prototyping tool. More interesting, though, is the way they envision it as functionizing as a customizable robot skeleton which could be used to animate and control analog objects. For example, you could stuff an old teddy bear with pieces of a ChainFORM to create your very own Teddy Ruxbin, or attach them to a camera to make a walking surveillance bot.
The duo—seemingly inspired by Starship Troopers—have yet another idea on how the ChainFORM could be used: As wearable, modular power armor. This was an idea Nakagaki explored with the LineFORM, which could be used as a workout device by wrapping around the arm and providing resistance. The ChainFORM could take this notion to the next level, wrapping around a person's entire body and using its robot actuators to help build or augment strength. You can snap off links from the ChainFORM and attach them to your glove to make a customizable exoskeleton, or take a long link and tape it to your spine as a posture connector.
The ChainFORM isn't there yet—like most of the Tangible Media Group's experiments, it's a prototype meant as an experiment with future interfaces, not a consumer-facing product. But Nakagaki and Dementyev both think they've created a viable vision for the future of computing and robotics: One in which building any device you want is as simple as tying two strings together.