Rovables: Tiny Robots That Roll on Your Clothes All Day

Fitness trackers and smart garments are supercool, right? Wearable technology makes it easier for us to micromanage and even save lives, from monitoring calorie intake to storing medical records. But according to researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Stanford University, there's one major drawback: Wearable devices can't move.

Last week at the ACM Symposium on User Interface Software and Technology in Tokyo, the researchers unveiled Rovables, small robots that can crawl vertically on clothing. Instead of being tethered to one part of the body, like the wrist or finger, these bots scurry up and down T-shirts on magnetic wheels. And they're equipped with a battery, microcontroller and wireless communication, so everything's happening on board.

But what's so novel about their mobility? The engineers argue that with locomotion, wearable devices can become fully autonomous and spatially aware. That means the robot can charge itself, hide when it needs to, talk to phones and computers, and self-navigate.

The Rovables have many practical applications, too. They can carry displays, so they could assemble to form one large screen for movie-watching, for example. Or they could move to your chest to measure your heart rate. The robots also are capable of providing tactile feedback, so they could tap your shoulder when you get an email or give you directions when biking. And if style is your concern, they could help you switch up your ensemble by forming a necklace or changing your shawl to a scarf. You could even program them to a daily routine.

Despite the bots' useful health and lifestyle functions, the researchers acknowledge the Rovables need improvements — they're not ready to be put on the market yet. The 45-minute battery life could be better, and the bots roam best on the torso. Also, who really wants tiny mechanical wheels rolling on their skin all day?

But the fact that no special, high-tech shirt is needed to make these wearable devices work is an accomplishment itself. If one day the bots are the size of a fingernail like the researchers envision, then they could be a handy, unobtrusive part of our everyday lives.