Presto! Want a bigger bedroom? You need a robotic house

UCLA trains architects to design buildings that move and adapt to our needs

Think the Internet of Things and the idea of smart homes is all about having your smartphone talk to your car and your refrigerator message you when you're out of milk?

Think again. Actually, think bigger.

The University of California at Los Angeles has a graduate-level program focused on teaching architects how to design intelligent robotic buildings. These buildings would be able to change their configuration to adapt to their owners' needs.

With these smart houses, a woman hosting a dinner party would be able to have the inside walls of her house move, giving her a larger dining room space. Or a hotel could switch out a small bathroom in a guest room for a larger one that comes to the room along the outside faade of the building.

The Internet of Things just got a whole lot bigger.

"We are focusing on how different elements within the building could adapt to special needs," Julia Koerner, an architect and lecturer at UCLA, told Computerworld. "Huge stadiums have moving roofs. Why not look into smaller typographies and see how moving walls could transfer a space from being small to large or having different functions?

"What other things could you do with a building if it could transform into different shapes or a different arrangement of spaces," Koerner added.

UCLA is training its student architects in how to design moving, robotic buildings. (Credit: UCLA)

This is the thinking behind the university's master of architecture II program known as Suprastudio. In its third year, the student in the 11-month program work with a professor and a business partner. This year, that partner is The Boeing Co., a company known for building aircraft, satellites and rockets.

Previous business partners were The Walt Disney Co. and Cirque du Soleil. Boeing is collaborating with UCLA to reimagine a factory.

Factories are static buildings. They're usually made up of walls and a roof with a few rooms added along the outside walls. Koerner said students in the program are working to come up with a more dynamic building, possibly one that has moving platforms or walls that could adapt the building for manufacturing different sized aircraft or products.

"We're looking at architecture and asking what can we move and how would we move them instead of just being open and closed. Maybe they might be moving subtly all day," said UCLA architecture and urban design professor Greg Lynn, in a statement. "A room, for example, could shrink when no one's using it, decreasing energy usage and other costs."

Koerner declined to offer more information about what Boeing is looking for. The company did not respond to a request for comment.

"That's innovative," said Bob Kinicki, a computer science professor and an Internet of Things researcher at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Worcester, Mass. "I hear all kinds of examples of the Internet of Things and this is a new one to me. Obviously it gives you flexibility in how you manage rooms. Being a university, we have that issue. There are advantages if you could move walls and adapt the rooms to your needs."

The UCLA students are using four robots, including two robotic arms that rotate on six axles and can lift up to 300 pounds. They also have two smaller robots with a load capacity of 12 pounds each. The robots are used to enable the students to test their models and move structures.

Koerner said the use for moving, robotic buildings would be as varied as factories, individual homes, hotels and restaurants.

A hotel, for instance, could use modular bathrooms. If a guest requested a bigger bathroom, the current bathroom could be moved out and a bigger one, which moves along the outside of a the building, could be moved in. Instead of having a rotating restaurant on the top of the hotel, there could be a restaurant that moves around the outside of the building so people passing by could look up and see it.

"This is definitely upping the definition of smart home or smart building to a whole new level," said Dan Olds, an analyst with The Gabriel Consulting Group. "In fact, these aren't just smart homes - they're dynamic homes. Now the Internet of Things includes walls, doors and mechanical systems."

The impact of the robotic home could become even more dramatic over time, Olds said.

"Think about how much space you need in a typical house today, and how much of it you use at a given time," Olds said. "If the house could dynamically reconfigure itself to match your daily routine, you could find yourself being much happier in less space and using less energy. For example, a room could be configured as an office during the day, with a media wall that is used as a business display. But at night, it could be a living room, and then it could transform into a bedroom."

That kind of adaption could significantly cut down on the number of square feet people need in order to feel comfortable in their home.

But there are hurdles to overcome to get to that point.

Would a bed or a desk be stored in the walls when the room changes into something else? If a bathroom is switched out for a larger one, the plumbing connections would need to be standardized to make sure they seamlessly fit.

"If UCLA gets this done, what are going to be the costs to the customer?" Kinicki asked. "Do people want a moving building or a changing bathroom? And are they willing to pay for it? I'm skeptical. We want the smart toaster and the smart light bulb and we want them to cost 20 cents."

This article, Presto! Want a bigger bedroom? You need a robotic house, was originally published at Computerworld.com.

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, on Google+ or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed. Her email address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

See more by Sharon Gaudin on Computerworld.com.

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