A universally acknowledged truth about living in New York City is that there’s very little space to go around. What passes for an entire apartment in Manhattan is considered a walk-in closet in Des Moines. This dearth of square footage has resulted in a couple notable phenomenons: Namely, pocket-emptying rents and some—let’s just call it—creative uses of space.
I recently glimpsed one particularly unusual vision of our inevitable micro-living future. Twenty floors up in a luxury midtown Manhattan studio apartment, a hulking piece of furniture sat pressed against the wall. From the front it looked like an entertainment console with built in shelving. From the side, it appeared to be a regular bookshelf, save for a small button. At nine feet tall, five feet wide and seven feet long, the thing took up nearly a fourth of the apartment’s main living area, leaving just enough space for what could either be a livingroom or bedroom, but definitely not both.
“This is Ori,” said Keegan Kampschroer, patting the side of the wooden block. Kampschroer is the assistant general manager of the The Eugene, the apartment building hosting the demo, and he was there to show me how to operate the massive hunk of wood. Because—it turns out—Ori needs an operator.
Ori, short for origami, is a robot disguised as plywood furniture. Push a button or dictate a command and the unit, as its name suggests, unfolds itself into a bed or walk-in closet. “There are a couple ways to control the system, but this is the coolest,” Kampschroer told me as he turned to an Amazon Echo sitting on a nearby table.
“Hey Alexa, tell Ori to show me the bed,” he said.
With a whirr, the bottom of the furniture began to slowly expand like a wooden transformer. After about 20 seconds, a fully made bed jutted into the living room, taking up most of the apartment’s once-empty space. “It essentially turns a studio into a one bedroom,” Kampschroer said, pressing a button to make the bed disappear.
I was there to give Ori a test ride, in the most literal sense. For the last two years, the company’s founders have been working to fine tune the system into something that could be commercialized and mass produced. With its arrival at The Eugene (it’s also installed at nine other luxury residential developments across the country) Ori has finally entered its pilot stage. By the end of the year, the company plans to sell individual units for $10,000 a pop, presumably to real estate developers and people like myself: Young, technologically savvy consumers who live in cramped, urban apartments.
“Millennials are looking for frictionless experiences,” Hasier Larrea, one of Ori’s co-founders, told me.” And Ori, with its automatically vanishing bed and considered app is the epitome of effortless. As someone squarely in its target audience, I was curious to see how I’d like living with robotic furniture. Was chatting with a bookshelf really the wave of the future? Could a shape-shifting storage unit actually make a tiny apartment feel more spacious?
I gave it a go. “Alexa,” I said confidently. “Show me the bed.” Nothing.
“Tell Ori to show me the bed,” Kampschroer corrected.
“Alexa, tell Ori to show me the bed,” I repeated, as the bed’s motors stirred to life.
Robots, like humans, can be awfully finicky roommates.
Before Ori found its way into the high end rental market, it was a research project at the MIT Media Lab’s Changing Places group. Six years ago, the group’s director, Kent Larson, began thinking about how robotics could make the growing trend of micro living feel less micro. He figured if small spaces felt like big spaces, more people might be inclined to scale down. The reverb effect, he reasoned, would be increased density and decreased strain on cities experiencing booming populations.
One of his solutions was the City Home, a transformable piece of furniture ripped from the Ikea 2050 catalog. The prototype changed shape with the wave of a hand. Full dining room tables, beds, and showers emerged from the wooden rectangle like magic. “We were exploring ideas, some of which weren’t ready to commercialize,” Larson recalled.
At the time, Larrea and his co-founders, Carlos Rubio, Ivan Fernandez, and Chad Bean, were students of Larson’s, working on the project. City Home was a lab prototype, but Larrea and his team thought the idea of automated, shape-shifting furniture held real market potential. “When you look at the smart home, it’s all based on peripherals,” he said. “We’ve been forgetting about 90 percent of the space.”
Unlike smart thermostats and connected coffee pots, furniture is a room’s anchor. This makes it interesting as a potential hub for all of the ad-hoc IOT doodads people will eventually add to their home. Larrea and his partners began to pare down the original concept, keeping only the most vital features. They built Ori’s simple, modern poplar frame on top of a skeleton of software, sensors, motors, wheels, and tracks. Today, Ori has three main tricks: It can expand to create a walk-in closet, contract to make more living room space, and—most importantly—hide a messy bed with the press of a button.
Wall to Wallet
You’re right to think the idea seems odd. Ori’s main conceit is counterintuitive: How does adding a massive piece of furniture to your room create more space? The math doesn’t work out. Ori isn’t a discreet murphy bed that tucks into a closet or wall. It has a real, unavoidable presence in a room.
Later that evening, a friend came by to check it out. “It’s big,” he said, stating the obvious. It’s a fact even Larrea concedes. The value of Ori isn’t in creating more physical space, Lerrea says, but optimizing the space you already have. If you wanted to have a walk-in closet, bedroom, office desk, and living room—all things Ori provides— you’d have to upgrade to a one, maybe two, bedroom apartment. In a place like the Eugene that means rent prices above the already staggering $4,000 for a compact studio.
Ori is hefty. It’s robust enough to carry the weight of an adult woman taking a joyride on its built-in desk (or so I’ve heard). Only after dozens of continuous commands did the system seem to tire. A few times Ori got confused and left the bed stranded in the room, half showing. Every so often, the wheels would get caught on the track as the unit pulled away from the wall, producing the eerie sound of a mechanical death rattle.
In those ways, Ori still feels like early technology—a 1.0 version of something destined to become commonplace in the next decade. Will the robotic furniture of the future look exactly like Ori’s shape shifting bookshelf? Probably not. But it’s easy to see how the underlying system could be a jumping off point for other adaptable designs.
For now, Ori is a luxury item that developers will buy to add value to what’s already prohibitively expensive studio apartments (Brookfield, the developer of The Eugene, says they could ask for an additional $350 a month for an Ori-outfitted space). Sure, it’s useful—as someone with one closet in her tiny one-bedroom apartment, the lust for a walk-in closet is real. But at this point, it’s too early to think of this as a real option for the average person.
As I showed my friend around the apartment, he started thinking out loud about all the nagging concerns homeowners have when considering a big purchase. “What happens when you drop the Apple TV remote through the crack?” he asked. “What if a mouse gets in there? “What about dust?” “What about bed bugs?” Entrusting your apartment to a mechanism that will inevitably break down produces a novel form of anxiety.
Then I ask Alexa to show me the closet. The bookshelf slides away from the wall, revealing a beautiful, organized nook designed to hide away all of life’s inconvenient clutter.
“That is cool,” he said. He’s right. It really is.