Innovation of the Week: Robotic furniture boosts square-footage | Crain's Boston

Innovation of the Week: Robotic furniture boosts square-footage

“Within city limits” is a perennially popular place for young professionals all over the United States to seek housing, but studies show that even the scarcity of affordable square-footage in major U.S. cities isn’t always enough to persuade renters to go for a studio apartment.

One startup, just now entering the Miami market through Zom USA’s Monarc at Met3, is attempting to deepen the appeal of small quarters. Ori Systems, launched in 2015 as a spinoff from work at MIT, has released its first product aimed at helping real estate developers do just that. The robotic furniture system is at once a dresser, a desk and a bed.

The concept behind Ori’s offering is that using only the types of furniture needed at a particular moment can free up space in a studio or one-bedroom apartment; think Murphy Beds with a sleek design and added technology for ease of use.

Hasier Larrea, CEO and co-founder of Ori and a 2015 graduate of MIT, led a team, along with one of his professors, co-founder Kent Larson, that worked on the product research and development from 2011 to 2015.

“As a robotics company, we could have applied this technology to hotel rooms, offices or dorms, but we decided to start with studio apartments,” Larrea said. “The more expensive the city is, the more scarce the square-footage is, and you need to think about creative ways of using the space.”

Larrea said the team’s research included learning about the three primary challenges renters face in studio apartments, per an Urban Land Institute study: the lack of division of space; of a proper living or socializing area; and of storage and closet space.

A common complaint among studio renters, Larrea said, was that the size and placement of a bed can be a nuisance in a studio apartment. “Your bed is always in the way in a studio apartment, and it’s a bit awkward with friends over,” he said.

“When you want to transform the space, it should happen effortlessly with a finger touch or voice or with your mobile phone,” Larrea added.

The Ori furniture has a button, which Larrea calls its “brain,” that allows the user to apply a finger touch to control the system’s basic functionality. Presets allow users to change the system’s format quickly to adjust to their current needs: a work space with a desk; storage with shelving and a closet; or the ability to raise the bed from below.

Larson, director of Changing Places Research Group & City Science Initiative at MIT Media Lab, has been doing housing research at MIT for about 20 years.

“I decided about five years ago that we needed to focus on addressing the challenge of housing becoming unaffordable for young people in the most innovative cities, where the lifeblood is the creative activity of young people,” Larson explained. “The cities that most need young people to remain economically and culturally competitive are pricing young people out of the market.”

Larson noted that over the years even some mayors, such as Anthony Williams of Washington, D.C., have raised the concern that young people cannot always afford to live in major cities that seek those inhabitants.

To address this issue, the Ori team aims to place its system in studio and one-bedroom apartments through partnerships with real-estate developers looking to step up their offerings to new renters through long-term investments such as this.

Larrea compares an investment in Ori’s furniture system, which starts at about $10,000, to that in typical appliances. Just as with a refrigerator or washing machines and dryers, Ori has partnerships with certified maintenance providers and installers who set up the system for the building owners and can return later if needed to perform maintenance.

Larson explained that though renters may not initially seek smaller apartments, architectural robotics and advanced technology can allow small spaces to be “potentially even more functional, efficient and enjoyable” than a larger space with a conventional design.

Larrea said the company began garnering feedback from clients in Boston earlier this year and has since been planting pilots in cities throughout the United States to observe how the product plays in different markets. By the end of the year, Ori plans to launch its first production units, all of which, Larrea said, will have received the necessary safety certifications, final tweaks and design adjustments.

Going forward, Larson said, the Ori team is considering the possibility of implementing its systems in assisted-living facilities, dormitories for students and hotel rooms, where they might be able to create improved live-work environments.

Because the basic functionality of the furniture system is unchanged by customization of the outer “skin” or furniture design, Larson said, “there’s no reason the process can’t evolve to have almost unlimited variations.”

September 5, 2017 - 5:40pm