Researchers Unveil Rubik's Cube-Like Shape-Shifting Device
A new modular device could allow your next smartphone to double as a game controller, console, or any other handheld gadget you can think of thanks to some clever engineering and design. Called the “Cubimorph,” the proof-of-concept device was developed by researchers at the University of Bristol in the U.K.
The researchers are presenting their design at the IEEE’s International Conference on Robotics and Automation, taking place in Stockholm, Sweden this week. The Cubimorph is composed of a number of small cubes that can be reconfigured into almost any three-dimensional shape. It’s a bit like a Rubik’s Cube, if each individual block could move independently. There's a touchscreen on the face of each individual cube within the Cubimorph.
The interactive device takes advantage of a hinge-mounted turntable mechanism, allowing it to reconfigure itself in the user’s hand. “Cubimorph contributes toward the vision of programmable matter where interactive devices reconfigure in any shape that can be made out of a chain of cubes in order to fit a myriad of functionalities, e.g., a mobile phone shifting into a console when a user launches a game,” the researchers wrote on the project’s Web site.
The Cubimorph certainly benefits from the many recent advances in the field of modular robots. But there are also some unique design and programming solutions that allow the device to do what it does. Chief among these is some relatively advanced mechanical engineering.
The research team said they designed the device to function within several real-world constraints, such as being self-contained so that the individual modules could not be lost; the ability to transform itself within a small space so as not to inconvenience a user; and having interactive elements to allow for a modern user interface.
To accommodate those constraints, researchers designed a chain of modules connected to each other via a hinge mounted on a turntable mechanism. That design feature allows the device to be self-contained while giving it the ability to create seamless surfaces.
The Secret’s in the Algorithm
But the Cubimorph’s real advances may be the algorithm it uses to figure out the most efficient path to change from one shape to another. The device creates models of the starting and ending configurations, and then runs through the various paths that it could use to move from one shape to the next.
From there, it can build a graph showing which path is the most efficient, either by being faster or by requiring the least amount of space. The researchers said the algorithm is able to avoid transformation paths that would cause inconveniences, e.g., pinching a user’s fingers or creating a cumbersome shape such as a straight line.
Despite the gadget’s nifty ability to change its shape on the fly, the researchers referred to it as only a proof-of-concept, emphasizing that more work remains to be done. “There is still a lack of understanding of user requirements in order to build devices that can not only reconfigure but also fully satisfy user needs," the researchers noted. "This is especially true in mobile contexts where many constraints need to be tackled."
Image Credit: Cubimorph screenshots via Bristol Interaction Group (BIG).