This Swarm Of Little Robots Is A Totally New Kind Of Interface

They’re called Zooids, and they could replace many of the screens in your life.

Can you imagine a world in which a fleet of tiny robots roam around your house, cleaning and fussing over your home for you?


Meet the Zooids. The centerpiece of a research project at Stanford University’s Shape Lab, they’re small, wheeled robots that act in concert to accomplish various tasks like reminding you to walk your dog or acting as a timer for your tea. First envisioned as a means of representing graphical interfaces in the physical world, the researchers who invented them are now exploring several different applications for their creations.

Mathieu Le Goc, a post-doc at Stanford who collaborated on the Zooids project with the AVIZ Visual Analytics Project from Parisian research lab Inria, thinks of the Zooids as a type of interface called a swarm interface. An easy metaphor is an ant colony. “One ant alone is pretty simple and dumb in some ways, but all put together, you create this social, collaborative aspect that makes the abilities of the swarm,” Le Goc says. “Colonies of ants can create physical structures by all working together. In that vein, with robots, it’s pretty much the same. They can work together to create interfaces that can change in space and at the same time can collaborate with you.”

Swarm interfaces are already used in building larger systems in robotics. For instance, the German industrial company Siemens has built spider-like robots that work together to perform tasks. This type of robot can be used to build cities, undertake rescue systems, and even cleaning up oil spills. But Sean Follmer, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Stanford who leads the Shape Lab, Le Goc, and their team wanted to use the same idea behind the swarm as a way to display information.

[Photo: courtesy Mathieu Simon Le Goc]
While users interact with most swarm interfaces through a computer, Zooids were designed so users could interact with them directly. Because the small bots can work together collaboratively on myriad tasks, they have the potential to be more versatile than purpose-built home robots, like the Roomba vacuum, or even anthropomorphic home helper bots like Kuri. In the home, having a small fleet of bots that can work in concert opens up possibilities as to what types of tasks they could accomplish.

[Photo: courtesy Mathieu Simon Le Goc]
The team presented their work on Zooids in 2016, and have now published two more papers on two applications of the research–in education and in the home. Le Goc, Follmer, and Ph.D. student Pauline Gourlet from Université Paris 8 created Zoommings, an interactive game based on the ’90s computer game Lemmings, where players had to guide a group of single-minded lemmings through a hostile terrain, endowing particular ones with skills so the entire group wouldn’t die. The three researchers set out to create a real-life version of that game, where players have to guide “zoommings” through a series of obstacles by placing different “hats” on their head that give them special skills like “blocker” or “bulldozer.” Players have to arrange the zoommings in the right order so they can all successfully get through the physical obstacles. The goal is to teach children logical, computational thinking through a fun, interactive game.

Follmer and Ph.D. student Lawrence Kim also recently published a paper on the UbiSwarm project, where they’ve used the idea behind Zooids to create a “ubiquitous robotic interface.” That means the small robots work together to perform functions like pushing your phone across the table to you when it rings, moving in a circle around a cup of tea to indicate how long you should steep it, and notifying you that your phone battery is low by converging on the device in a jerky motion.


What does it feel like to have a small crowd of robots rush over to you when you’re working? In the paper, Follmer and Kim studied how people perceive the robots. Participants rated their impressions of particular behaviors, like when a group of robots disperse, move around randomly, converge, move in a circle, and flock together. Researchers found that when the robots were programmed to act as if they were alive, people responded with excitement, willingness to pay attention, and urgency. Higher speeds inspired perceptions of excitement while smooth movements inspired perceptions of attraction and likeability. The researchers did not find any statistically significant negative association with the swarm (likely because of the rating scales they chose to use).  The results, based on different rating systems, don’t tell the entire story: several participants also left comments. Two thought the robots were creepy, one didn’t see them as robots at all, and others thought they looked like hockey players skating or mini trash cans.

As robots become more prominent in our homes, UbiSwarm is a platform for interacting with swarm interfaces that act like little helpers. Right now it’s just in the research phase–Follmer says that Zooids in their current form are more for the researchers to test out potential applications and prototype user experience, but they believe that this type of interface will be impactful in the future. “This is where we have robots that are distributed around our environment, behind the scenes, ambiently so it’s always there when you need it, always there to sense things in your environment,” he says. “How do these display information to us, sense things and be able to tell us things”?

For now, the answer seems to be doing a little dance on the table to capture your attention or zooming over to your calendar to remind you of a deadline. But if these robots could one day clean my apartment for me? I’m sold.

About the author

Katharine Schwab is an associate editor at Co.Design based in New York who covers technology, design, and culture.