MIT Develops Shapeshifting, Modular Robot
Tom Spendlove posted on December 14, 2016 |

Ken Nakagaki and his team from the Tangible Media Group (part of the MIT Media Lab) have been making the rounds with ChainFORM, a shape shifting hardware system. ChainFORM at its simplest looks like a robotic snake but the different links in the system can detach and each perform more functions. This publicity video from MIT shows an amazing array of functions that the system can perform.

ChainFORM - Long ver. from Tangible Media Group on Vimeo.

Each module in the chain has three main components. A servo motor, a circuitboard and a bracket. Eight LED lamps are also attached to each module. The controller uses a Teensy 3.2 and ARM Cortex-M4 (MK20KX56VLH7, Freescale) to send inputs to each module on the chain. This master module also sends data back and forth to a computer through USB.










The paper that was released this October outlines the components used in the system and the intent and decisions that factored into using the components. The paper is very easy to read and understand from an abstract level while still containing heavy concrete details about components and architecture. The most fascinating thing to me is that the links on the chain can be removed or added with seemingly very little disruption to the system. Each link needs to be hard connected with a wire, but the act of pulling the links apart and attaching each to a different glove finger or robot leg is quick and seamless.

The video shows several uses for the system, my favorite is the knob and slider control that is used to manipulate a 3D wireframe object on a screen. It’s also worth noting that by inserting various pieces into a puppet that the two dimensional planar motions easily can work together to give the illusion of a three dimensional system of movements. The applications that can be done with colored LED lights and haptic feedback is also impressive.











(Video and images courtesy of the Tangible Media Group)

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