Ori’s Robotic Furniture Hints at Future of Smart Homes, Urban Design

Xconomy Boston — 

The “smart” device movement has brought us gadgets like Internet-connected thermostats, light bulbs, and speakers. Now, a startup out of MIT called Ori wants to add furniture and walls to the so-called Internet of Things.

“When we think of the home of the future or office of the future, the IoT has been limited to the peripherals,” says Ori co-founder and CEO Hasier Larrea. “But no one is thinking about, ‘What if we bring that intelligence to the space itself?’”

That’s what Boston-based Ori is trying to do with its “architectural robotics” systems, Larrea says. I recently saw one of the pilot versions of its first product in action (see video below). The modular furniture is powered by a combination of software, electronics, sensors, wheels, and motors. It’s sort of like a Transformer for your home—it can morph between an entertainment center, a bedroom, a closet, and a small office.

The product is meant for cramped studio apartments, where every square foot is precious. When I walk into the company’s demo apartment at Boston’s Watermark Seaport complex, the Ori system is pressed against a wall, with a TV, a clock, plants, and other knickknacks resting on its shelves facing the couch and living room area. When Larrea presses a button on the side of the system, the whole thing slowly moves away from the wall, and Larrea pulls apart two sliding doors on its back side to reveal a closet with hanging clothes and blankets stored on shelves. A bed slides out from the bottom of the cabinet. There’s also a rectangular tabletop that can pull out and serve as a desk.

The various configurations are controlled by the touchpad on the side of the system, or with voice commands via Amazon Alexa or Google Home devices.

Ori fits into a few trends, in addition to the recent surge of smart, connected devices. It’s also an example of how companies are finding ways to apply software, robotics, and other technologies (see: virtual reality) to architecture and design. (Another smart-city startup in the Boston area is Soofa, which, like Ori, has roots at the MIT Media Lab.)

Ori also fits with a shift toward “mass urbanization,” Larrea says. As millions of people flock to cities around the world, space is becoming scarcer and more expensive. That challenge requires creative thinking, he says.

“There’s a huge need to change the paradigm of space because cities really need it,” Larrea says. “Urban spaces … are too valuable to be static and unresponsive, which is how they are right now.”

While studio apartments are Ori’s initial focus, Larrea says the company intends to create additional products for homes, offices, restaurants, hotels, hospitals, and other urban spaces. That could mean beds that descend from the ceiling, say, or retractable partitions in offices for creating private meeting rooms on demand, he says.

“Don’t think of Ori as a company that does moving walls,” Larrea says. “Think about [it as] a company that is trying to rethink the way we design spaces, the way we create architecture, and the way we can make it possible to live large in a small footprint.”

Ori was formed two years ago, based on ideas and technologies developed at the MIT Media Lab. Larrea, a mechanical engineer by training, was a researcher there for four years, working with a team of engineers led by Kent Larson, who directs the Media Lab’s City Science Initiative and Changing Places group. Ori’s other founders include Larson, Carlos Rubio, Chad Bean, and Ivan Fernandez de Casadevante, a spokeswoman says.

The company recently raised $6 million in a Series A funding round led by Khosla Ventures, bringing its total venture capital haul to about $7 million, Larrea says.

Now, we’ll find out if Ori can turn an intriguing concept into a real business. The nine-person company will likely grow to around 15 employees over the next few months, adding people in branding and marketing, supply chain and logistics, and engineering, Larrea says.

Ori is selling its first product for about $10,000 per system, mainly to apartment building developers, Larrea says. Customers have placed preorders totaling more than … Next Page »

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