Back in 2011, MIT Media Lab’s Changing Places Group started their CityHome project, which explored how data and technology could make living spaces more flexible, efficient, and reflective of use patterns. Eventually, the group built a prototype micro-apartment with sensor-enabled, gesture and app controllable furniture; the centerpiece of which was a module containing a bed, table, kitchen, storage and other stuff.
The CityHome was part of a larger movement. Mostly focused on micro-apartments (sub 350 sf), this movement saw how furniture could play a critical role in spatial design. Other players included LifeEdited (where I worked for several years) and Yo! Home—the residential arm of Yo! Companies/Yotel/Yo! Companies.
Anyway, fast forward a few years and some of the MIT students decided to bring the tech to the free market. Thus Ori Systems was born.
Ori now sells a less far-out version of the original module direct to developers. It doesn’t have the funky LED lights and gestural controllability, but it moves back and forth depending on user needs and can be voice (Alexa) or app activated (there’s also a nifty control panel). The module contains a bed, desk, and a ton of storage. I saw one in situ a month ago and what impressed me was that it looked—and felt—like a real piece of furniture.
Ori opened up a new class of “robotic” furniture (I’d call it automated or even IoT but whatever)—a class that is now joined by stealth-ish mode Bumblebee Spaces.
Helmed by engineer Sankarshan Murthy—formerly at Tesla and Apple—Bumblebee is building ceiling-mounted furniture systems that use the “third dimension” of space (assuming he means height), as Murthy told The Information (paywall).
It’s a novel approach—one that The Information says might bring a number of regulatory, financial, and psychological barriers, particularly Bumblebee. Ceiling mounted furniture might add a layer of DOB complexity most developers won’t want to be bothered with (both firms are mostly focusing on developers rather than retail). Any elective FFE—particularly that which costs >$10k—is at high risk of being lost on the pro forma editing room floor. And folks might not know what to do with these new-fangled contraptions—much less ones that loom overhead.
The other issue is that architects and developers need to consider these systems in the design DNA of a space. Adding them after the fact provides some utility but not nearly as much as if the systems were integral parts of the design. Making them integral means a developer must commit units to a relatively untested market concept and business model (smaller, furniture-enhanced spaces). In my experience, most developers won’t commit to anything that’s untested.
Then again, urban housing development is mad f’d. Crazy development costs drive developers to churn out high-end units which go vacant while low middle markets are underhoused…so it’s not totally implausible that a developer or two might be willing to do something different.
Indeed, Ori reports their systems will be in 200 units by the end of the year and Bumblebee will be installed in one of coliving company Starcity’s units sometime in the near future. And both companies have raised a bit of capital—$6m for Ori and ~$3m for BB—suggesting furniture-as-gadget is far from a pipedream.