Adding a new kind of mobility to mobile devices

As a typical millennial, my cell phone is essentially attached to my body─another limb if you will. Our phones do so much more than many ever imagined they would, and now, some researchers are identifying the current limitations of mobile devices and envisioning even more capabilities.

Marc Teyssier, Gilles Bailly, Catherine Pelachaud and Eric Lecolinet, researchers from Telecom ParisTech (Université Paris Saclay), HCI team of ISIR (Sorbonne Université) and CNRS, embarked on a research project doing just that. The project is being presented at UIST 2018, 31st ACM User Interface Software and Technology Symposium this week.

The group of researchers noticed the static and motionless limitations of mobile devices and developed a robotic limb, MobiLimb, to overcome them. Their approach preserves the form factor and I/O efficiency of mobile devices and adds new ones by attaching a robotic device to the phone.

“The users can manipulate and deform the robotic device (input); they can see and feel it (visual and haptic feedback), including when its shape is dynamically modified by the mobile device; and as a robotic manipulator, it can support additional modular elements (LED, shells, proximity sensors),” the project’s website explains.

Making this unique device function is a system of servo motors, sensors, electronics and microcontrollers.

“MobiLimb is a robotic manipulator with a kinematics structure of five revolute joints in serial,” the website states. “It is composed of four main parts of the system: the actuators, the sensors, the embedded electronics and the controller.”

The research team used five PZ-15320 servo motors – two mounted on two orthogonal axes at the base of the unit, and the other three mounted in parallel at their own respective joints. The motors are encased in a plastic 3-D-printed structure that allows the unit freedom of motion.

As for the sensors, the motors provide feedback of their position, while a flexible potentiometer detects a user’s touch. The device is controlled with an Arduino Leonardo Pro Micro microcontroller, which is also housed in the 3-D-printed structure and is attached on the bottom and back of a mobile device.

MobiLimb: Augmenting Mobile Devices with a Robotic Limb [UIST 2018] from Marc Teyssier on Vimeo.

The researchers developed an Android application/Unity API, which allows users to drive the MobiLimb and create, record and play animations, according to the website.

Three different textures/aesthetics were designed for the device. The first is the plastic 3-D-printed housing, the second is made of fur and the third is a realistic finger made with Plastil Gel-10 silicon.

“Using human-like skin with the phone changes the perception of the mobile device from an inanimate object to an ‘almost’ human entity,” the project website states.

Although, I’ve never looked at my phone and thought it needed limbs, it would be nice if it could make its way to me on its own, so that I don’t have to get up every time I leave it across the room. Regardless, it’ll be interesting to see where this idea of a more intimate relationship with our mobile devices will lead.