A spatial experience provoking thought around the future of soft robotics.
Bridgestone Soft Robotics Ventures x IDEO
iRex International Robotics Exhibition, Tokyo Big Sight, Japan
What if robots moved minds, not objects? In an industry that focuses almost exclusively on productivity based solutions, Bridgestone Soft Robotics Ventures wish to more deeply consider our emotional relationship with robotics. The brief was to conceptualize and construct an exhibit that showcases a unique and provocative application of Bridgestone’s artificial muscle technology. The result, an interactive experience that serves as a stark contrast to its neighbouring exhibits at iRex, prompts people to consider robotics in a new way.
Chris Pearce: Industrial Design, Project Lead, Creative Direction
Kenta Kondo: Mechanical Engineering, Project Management
Rhianna Davies: Communications Design
Jan Rod: Interaction Design
The IDEO team, consisting of 4 different disciplines, hand-crafted the experience. The bed structure, crocheted canopy, woven bed, electronics, pneumatics and audio was meticulously developed and constructed in-house. The team collaborated with Melanie Uematsu in upholsterting the furniture, and RIZE Design Works, who brought dozens of suppliers and contractors together to construct the booth’s outer structure.
Soft forms, warm colours and unusual shapes strike a contrast with the other booths at the exhibition. The booth is divided into three main sections. The lobby area, in which visitors can discover the concept and converse with staff, the tech demonstration area, where visitors can touch the artificial muscles and learn about the technology, and the main experience, nestled within the booth.
Two visitors at a time are invited to remove their shoes, step inside and lie down on a bed of robotic actuators. The bed then sinks downwards, rests in a state of complete decompression, then slowly rises back up again. This process repeats several times, while the overhead canopy slowly uncoil overhead. The result; a unique relaxation experience that transforms your perspective on the role of robotics.
Custom furnishings made use of soft cushioning, woven textiles, imperfect and organic forms, reflecting the qualities of the artificial muscle and extending it into the surrounding environment. The interior room was acoustically and visually private, offering sanctuary from the chaotic exhibit beyond. Warm lighting and custom-made aroma created a domestic feel to the room, offering an alternative mood to the harsh, industrial robotics found in the other exhibits.
The bed is comprised of fourteen suspended artificial muscles arranged in a row, with cushioned yarn woven between them. This arrangement allows visitors to not only see the artificial muscles, but to also feel each individual one as they lie ontop of them. Initially, the muscles are in full compression. Air is then slowly released, lowering the visitor down as their pressure drops. Visitors are surprised as they quickly feel relaxed by this short interaction with a robot. Despite having the strength to lift our body weight up and down, the robot is comforting, gentle and warm. Visitors leave with renewed perspective on human-robotic interactions, one that is centred around psychological safety and trustworthiness.
The overhead canopy was needed primarily to block light from the large spotlights in the exhibition hall, but the team saw opportunity to make use of artificial muscles, opting for a spiral format which lifts, lowers and rotates the canopy above the visitors heads. Due to the varying lengths and sizes of the elements, they each move at different rates, creating the feeling of a complex organism. Together, the movement of the bed, the canopy and the curtains combine to create a feeling of nature, with many elements acting independantly, yet seemingly in harmony with one another. We have long tried to imbue robotics with some kind of ‘soul’ in an attempt to improve human-to-machine connection and aid more widespread adoption, but Instead of trying to deepen connection by mimicking the form of humans or animals, as is typical in the industry, perhaps there is another way. Perhaps we can emulate ‘soul’ across wider systems, creating the illusion of life through multiplicity, variety and randomness of many elements in the evironment.
Interactive Technology Demonstration:
The goal of the exhibit was to garner interest in Bridgestone’s artificial muscle technology, so we had to find ways to offer visitors an interactive experience with the actual muscle technology itself. To blend this requirement into the booth concept, we created an array of muscles, all rising and falling independantly of one another. This ‘curtain’ feature encouraged passers-by to touch the muscles and offered an easy first step into the exhibit. From here, visitors can start deeper conversations with the Bridgestone staff members about the technology, the booth and the concept behind Umaru.