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Could these tiny robots be the future of computer interfaces?

A new development in robotics has allowed tiny desktop-roaming robots to act as the controls for complex computer interfaces.

The robots, known as "Thumbles", roll onto a projected touchscreen when needed, and provide the kind of tactile physical controls we sometimes miss from the latest generation of touch devices.

Developed by PattenStudio, a design shop that specializes in interactive experiences, the self-powered autonomous robots are designed to act as moveable placefinders for human interaction.

For example, they could roll onto the screen to provide gauges and dials for fiddly tasks like adjusting sound levels on an audio file, or colour levels on an image. If you were editing an image or film, they could be used as the cursor used to scrub the image clean.

There have even been tests where the little robots travel around a scale map of a city, representing emergency vehicles on their way to incidents, giving a real-time update on their positions.


The robots are fitted with omniwheels that allow them to easily move in any direction without needing to make turns.

PattenStudio argue that "the system combines the versatility of a graphical interface with the tactile advantages of physical controls."

The Thumbles also look like they make pretty good controllers for arcade-style games, as seen in the impressive animation below:


James Patten, the designer behind the robots, told reporters that "My inspiration was that I wanted to make computers more social, playful and flexible. Our bodies and minds are so well suited to interacting with physical objects. If we can use these objects to represent information inside a computer, so many new possibilities are created."

These are still hypothetical use cases, true – but the technology is pretty impressive nonetheless. It's not hard to imagine the little guys being given an attractive outer case and making their way onto a desktop near you in the near future.

Image: Business Insider