MIT’s ChainFORM robot transforms into anything from stylus to gaming joystick

A certain number of readers will remember how the Megazord in Power Ranger was one big robot made up of various smaller transforming ones. Well, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have been working on a project based around the same principles — and it’s pretty darn awesome.

What members of the university’s Tangible Media and Responsive Environments Group have created is a concept called ChainFORM: a modular robot that can change its form factor into anything from the legs of a walking robot to a haptic-feedback device to a gaming joystick, all depending on how you put the modules together.

Speaking with Digital Trends, researcher Ken Nakagaki described it as a “novel platform for shape-changing interfaces.”

“Utilizing modular robotics technology, we developed a hardware system with rich functionality to detect tangible interaction, change shape and color, and let users customize the length and configuration of the device,” he said.

The work built on a previous multifunctional snake robot project called LineFORM. ChainFORM itself is comprised of different modules boasting touch detection across multiple surfaces, blinking lights, and motor actuation. Like the world’s smartest Lego kit, when the individual pieces are connected together, it can work out how many there are, and the formation they are in. It’s then possible to change their function to explore different capabilities.

“We foresee ChainFORM to be used for mainly two practical scenarios: dynamic computer interfaces and prototyping tools for animation and interaction,” Nakagaki continued.

For the former, it offers a look at how our interactions with mobile devices and computers will change as transforming input interfaces, displays, and smart styluses become the norm.

“As for prototyping tools, we believe ChainFORM lets designers, artists, and children easily create animated and interactive crafts, similar in the way we cut and reconfigure daily linear craft materials such as tape and wire,” Nakagaki said. “The relatively small size of ChainFORM enables creators to attach it to other craft materials or [even their own] body. With ChainFORM, users will become capable of making materials dance and respond to them.”

While this is still very much a research project, Nakagaki noted that he expects to see the technology find its way into real-world products over the next decade.