Variate Labs' future furniture robots 19.08.11


If Miles Kemp were a tag cloud, he'd be a collection of buzzwords and catchphrases associated with the emerging field of interactive architecture: modular robotics, biomimetics, morphing furniture, smart goo, embedded computation, augmented reality, kinetic architecture, responsive environments. Here and there, in the whirl of words, we would catch glimpses of the surfer-dude speak he has picked up in southern California, where Kemp's multi-disciplinary design company, Variate Labs, is based. "Awesome" is a frequent superlative, "majorly" the default intensifier. He recently remarked to a friend on Twitter that he was "down to hang".

In person Kemp is a boyish-looking 32-year-old with a seriousness of purpose that belies his years. Interactive architecture's most fervent evangelist grew up on a farm in Easton, Maryland. By the age of five, he was "swinging a hammer", helping his father build their house. At 14, he knew his way around AutoCAD software and was working for an architect; at 21, he was a junior architect for Skidmore Owings and Merrill, "working on skyscrapers as one of the lead designers in the office in New York". In 2003, he enrolled at SCI-Arc because he knew they'd let him do his thesis on robotics. He graduated in 2005 with a master's degree.

"Watching The Jetsons as a kid, I thought that the idea of having helper robots around the house seemed plausible," he writes, in an essay Our Adapting Future, which appeared in the science magazine Seed:

"Smart interactive robots do not need to look like our mechanical humanoid cousins," he wrote. "Interactive architecture – a burgeoning collaboration across diverse scientific and design communities – has ushered in advancements in manufacturing, behavioural logic, and biologically inspired materials and introduced new ways robotics can enhance our lives.

"Our spaces and environments – buildings themselves – are becoming the robots, Rosie [the Jetsons' robot maid] is becoming the architecture around us, and unprecedented levels of responsiveness and environmental interactivity are becoming a reality."

In his 2009 book, Interactive Architecture, co-authored with Cal Poly Pomona professor Michael Fox, and in lectures at events such as the International Conference on Ubiquitous Computing, Kemp spreads the gospel of a polymorphous architecture that, any decade now, will shape-shift to suit our changing needs, maybe even respond to our moods. He imagines domestic interiors and workspaces whose furniture is composed of reprogrammable interlocking miniature robots, capable of reassembling themselves into whatever structure is needed, from coffee table to conference table.

If you crane your neck, Kemp suggests, you can just make out the adaptable, perhaps even affective architecture of the near future, right around the corner. He sees premonitions of it in the Pittsburgh-based Claytronics Project, a partnership between Carnegie Mellon University and Intel that is attempting to harness modular robotics, nanotechnology and computer science to create "programmable matter" – a sort of smart putty, formed out of millions of flyspeck-sized robots, that can embody information in dynamic, 3D form. In the tomorrow conjured by Claytronics researchers, you really will Reach Out and Touch Someone by phone: the person you're talking to will be in the room with you, a hyper-realistic simulation given touchable, three-dimensional form by nanobots.


credit Robert Miles Kemp/Variate Labs

Alternately, Kemp's interactive architecture, when it arrives, might look more like Curious Displays, a digital animation created by Julia Tsao for her graduate thesis in media design at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. In Tsao's evocation of Things to Come, pixels acquire the distributed intelligence of a social-insect super organism and come swarming off your screen, into your living room. A bubbling mass of bead-shaped little bots flows up a wall, coalescing into a screen playing Finding Nemo. One corner of the screen breaks away and streams, ant-like, down the wall, drawing our attention to a parched plant that needs watering. Another knot of pixelbots comes loose and forms itself into an arrow pointing at a wall-mounted clock; flashing a digital readout, it alerts us to the fact that our morning meeting has been rescheduled. The behaviour of these tactile, mobile, curiously purposive pixels quickly gives rise to questions, says Tsao, such as: "Does this movement and behaviour begin to allude to the development of a type of personality? What role do they take on in our daily lives?"

Kemp likes to describe our relationship to interactive architecture as a conversation. As in: "My vision of the future 50 years from now is, rather than you adapting to your environment, your environment's going to have a conversation with you."

Architecture, at least since modernism, has been not only a machine for living, but also the handmaiden of social engineering. "I want to move away from what architecture has been doing for a very long time," says Kemp, "which is: prescribing the way that life needs to be, for people. You build this a certain way and it will affect someone's life so much that they will live in a different way.

"I'm more interested in creating architecture that's about people, that's in the hands of people, that's an extension of people. I see this as a kit of parts, a set of tools that you could put in the hands of people, where people could actually determine their own environment – programming it themselves, interacting with these robots in real time to change their space as they see fit."

If we look in the historical rear-view mirror, we can see precursors of Kemp's robotecture in the work of English architects like John Frazer, whose "evolutionary architecture", if realised, would behave like an artificial life form, and Cedric Price, whose unbuilt Fun Palace was "indeterminate, flexible, and responsive to the changing needs of users", with floors that could be raised or lowered and movable windows and walls.

Even so, Kemp's interactive architecture is inescapably of its times. His vision of a programmable, maybe even hackable, architecture is tuned to a moment that mythologises the do-it-yourselfer, from the Maker movement to the growing legitimacy of self-published books to urban farming to 3D printing for the masses.

Thinking of the KILL ALL switch Tsao mocked up for her Curious Displays project, with a droll placard that warns the user to activate "if you discover rogue pixel blocks", does Kemp worry about the dark side of interactivity? What happens if smart goo turns ugly or morphing furniture goes haywire?

"When I first presented my robots back in school, showing all my animations in a building lab, architects were really excited but other people were pretty scared," he says. "They were afraid the furniture would swallow them.

"People get hurt when robot response is isolated and automatic. The robot spaces we design should have an active continuous feedback loop, so that the robots are constantly sensing, monitoring, thinking and asking us questions.

"I just hope Hollywood will give robots a break and stop stunting the advance of the field. The last thing we need is a sci-fi movie called The House, about a building that kills its inhabitants."


credit Robert Miles Kemp/Variate Labs



Dan Tuffs



Mark Dery

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I'm more interested in creating architecture that's an extension of people

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