[Image above] Credit: ACM SIGCHI; YouTube

While in Salt Lake City, Utah, last week for MS&T16, I came across more than just excellent materials science and engineering.

I spotted two tarantulas while exploring nearby nature trails—both crawling across different walkways, slowly minding their own business as I swooped down low to capture their portraits. And because these interesting creatures are nocturnal, I consider myself lucky to have spotted two of them during daylight hours.


Tarantulas sport camouflage effective for the forest floor. Credit: April Gocha

Many people, however, don’t share my sentiment.

While I think these impressive and slow-moving little creatures are awesome—and surprisingly cute—others look at the image above and see creepy and gross.  

But despite getting a bad rap for their large size and hairy bodies, tarantulas are actually quite docile. They usually don’t bite humans, and even when they do, their venom is weaker than that of a bee. Yet that does nothing to help their image.

Similar to tarantulas, people often have mixed reactions to robots, too—especially miniature robots that crawl all over you like spiders.

A team of scientists at MIT and Stanford has developed rovables—small on-body robots that can function as mobile and autonomous wearables.

The rovables use an onboard battery that allows them to continuously roam around on a user for about 45 minutes.

And no special clothing is needed, because the robots use neodymium magnet wheels to grip unmodified textiles, allowing them to roam freely up and down any of your favorite shirts.

The bug-like bots use a navigation and control system—with onboard sensors that track the rovables’ free-roaming path and position—to give the robots limited autonomous operation.

That means future roving robots could function on their own, crawling across you to perform a particular function and then tucking themselves back away after their task is complete—which may seem creepy or cool, depending on your perspective.

Watch the robots in action in this short video.

Credit: ACM SIGCHI; YouTube

According to the researchers, the robots could open doors to on-body sensing, modular displays, tactile feedback, and interactive accessories, which really means that there is a nearly endless array of possible applications for these little bots.

A Recode article about the research extends the vision more specifically: “A fleet of the robots could assemble on a wearer’s arm to create a display to watch video on the subway or tap a person on the shoulder when there’s new email. Or the wearable robots might roll up your sleeve or group into a safety light on your back when you’re riding a bicycle.”

These preliminary proof-of-concept bots can only move linearly, so more robust onboard microprocessors need to be developed to allow them to explore entirely in 3-D. And although they may not be entirely feasible or practical for some of the aforementioned functions, the rovables are a fun exercise to imagine interesting possibilities for the wearable tech of tomorrow.

So what do you think—creepy or cool?

The research, published in the Proceedings of the 29th Annual Symposium on User Interface Software and Technology is “Rovables: Miniature on-body robots as mobile wearables” (DOI: 10.1145/2984511.2984531).