The robot is nothing more than a cube on wheels. You wouldn’t think it could do all that much. But like a mechanical creature out of Wall-E, it’s adaptable. One moment, it’s a desktop fan. The next, it’s a piston moving your monitor up and down. The next, it’s an adorable toy car.
How is this possible? Because the robot is designed to change its outfit to suit the moment.
Hermits is the winner of Fast Company’s 2021 Innovation by Design Awards in the Student category. In research led by Ken Nakagaki, a researcher at MIT’s Tangible Media Group who recently accepted an assistant professorship at the University of Chicago, Nakagaki has created an imaginative new type of robot that, just like a hermit crab, can don a new shell at will. But while the crabs change shells to move their bodies into a larger house, Hermits change shells to acquire completely new capabilities.
Nakagaki wasn’t actually inspired by the hermit crab (the similarities between his project and the crabs were pointed out by one of his professors, but Nakagaki found the metaphor perfect to quickly explain his heady concept). Instead, he saw a lot of the work going on at MIT, where swarms of tiny robots or smart objects can combine to construct furniture or other novel objects. Experts call these experiments “programmable matter,” and they are basically large-scale examples of how our world can operate when we learn to rearrange atoms at will.
Rather than figure out how several robots could combine into a new robot, Nakagaki wondered, what if an individual robot could simply change its identity instead and evolve to have new types of movement or expression.
He developed a simple cube robot. It has four wheels and two motors, which allows it to go straight, turn, or spin in circles. The robot is designed to dock into different 3D-printed mechanical shells that each have a specific function. Once inside, the robot essentially serves as a mind and a motor. By spinning itself quickly inside each shell—imagine it as the simple electric motor inside a power screwdriver—the robot can accomplish a wide variety of things.
In the embedded video, you can get a small taste. The robot can drive a piston up and down in the air (raising a sign, an object, or even another cube robot). It can become a volume knob, or provide the resistance in a full force-feedback joystick. It can slip on a pair of windmill-like legs to traverse tougher terrain. And several of the robots can even power one shell, which Nakagaki demonstrates in his desktop-sized homage to Theo Jansen’s beachcombing Strandbeest. In each instance, the Hermit can completely remake its identity with nothing more than a bit of plastic casing. You could imagine a Hermit helicopter, or a Hermit record player. That’s the point. Nakagaki imagines that in the far future, the Hermit could interface with a 3D printer to build its own shells on demand, using AI to react to its environment and solve all sorts of problems. You can imagine the Hermit as the physical component to a smart home or building.
“There are lots of possibilities when we think about the ecosystem in our physical environment,” says Nakagaki.
See more from Fast Company’s 2021 Innovation by Design Awards. Our new book, Fast Company Innovation by Design: Creative Ideas That Transform the Way We Live and Work (Abrams, 2021), is on sale now.