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RockPaperRobot Is Making Furniture That Captures The Wonders Of Physics

17 June 2015, 9:00 am EDT By Andrea Alfano Tech Times
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Jessica Banks, founder and CEO of the engineering and design firm RockPaperRobot, uses her training in robotics to develop products that go beyond the traditional role of furniture.  ( Stacey Szewczyk | Tech Times )

When making functional furniture, it's of course important to take physics into account. But to Jessica Banks, the role physics plays in furniture design isn't purely pragmatic. As founder and CEO of the engineering and design firm RockPaperRobot and an MIT-trained engineer, Banks looks to physics for aesthetic inspiration.

"Almost everything we make is based on some dynamic physics principle," Banks told Tech Times. "I see something awesome happen within a glass of water and I think 'what if we could capture this moment in a physical object in a way that would really enhance a product?' "

We encounter furniture and physical concepts so routinely in our daily lives that most of us don't stop to think much about either of them. Banks aims to change this by carefully combining the two in a way that is both beautiful and functional, in a way that will "inspire people to look twice."

So far, she has accomplished this with a table made of magnetized floating cubes, a lamp that expands and contracts in response to its environment, and an array of other whimsical and dynamic, yet functional, products. Banks showed us a few of them when we visited the RockPaperRobot studio at the Brooklyn Navy Yard in New York City.

At several thousand dollars or more a piece, RockPaperRobot's current products are not exactly geared toward the everyday consumer. That will change soon, however, according to Banks.

"We are right now going through a huge shift and really scaling immensely," she said.

At the beginning of next year, RockPaperRobot will be moving just across the way from their current location to an 83,000-square-foot space with a shop, an auditorium for holding talks and conferences, and space for exhibits. The move will usher in a new phase for the company, one focused on expanding the market for its products beyond its current list of high-end clients.

As part of the transformation, Banks plans to incorporate a new level of interaction and functionality into RockPaperRobot's products. The dynamic nature of the pieces she designs and her background in artificial intelligence lend themselves quite nicely to the creation of furniture that can also function like a sort of in-home physician.

"You can imagine if your table and chairs and lighting and everything could work together to make sure that you don't have back pain or eye strain while you're working by understanding your physical state," Banks said.

If you've been sitting statically for too long, for example, the chair could shift to prevent you from having a painful or counterproductive response without disrupting your workflow. Or your chair might tell you that you've been sitting differently than usual, and that this could be a sign of a particular medical condition. The RockPaperRobot team is currently working with medical experts and others to create products with these kinds of capabilities, though they are still in the early stages of development.

"We think about the Internet of Things and the quantified self [a movement aimed at using technology to record data on our physical actions and biological functions] and often there's a disconnect between these things and ourselves," said Banks. "We want to fill that gap - we can have objects in our world that change according to our immediate needs."

To Banks, the Internet of Things is ultimately beside the point, however.

"The Internet of Things, to me, is sort of like, 'duh,' " she says. "Being connected is one thing. Being something that is accessible and beautiful and helpful is another."

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