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How robotic furniture will improve our lives

How robotic furniture will improve our lives

Beds and sofas that can be stored on the ceiling will make tiny apartments feel bigger

Beds and sofas that can be stored on the ceiling will make tiny apartments feel bigger

Alexandra Suich Bass | August/September 2019

I’m not the type of person who usually invites herself over to someone’s home, but in this case my curiosity trumped my manners. I was standing in the doorway, staring at the ceiling from which a white bed and cabinets were suspended on cables. “I was already a minimalist,” said Sebastien Dabdoub, the 29-year-old software engineer at Google who lives in this apartment in San Francisco, “but this is definitely an extreme.”

This is not a typical home. For one thing, it’s exceptionally small. At around 130 square feet, Dabdoub’s room is just big enough to fit a two-person sofa, double bed, desk, chair and bookcase (in typical San Francisco fashion, the tomes include “Distributed Algorithms”). Dabdoub shares a kitchen and bathroom down the hall with the building’s other residents. If I were to leap forward from the doorway with my hands outstretched, I could probably reach the window on the other side in a single bound.

I had invited myself over to see the future of living in the Bay Area – or at least one version of it. A startup called Bumblebee Spaces is trying to make micro apartments more appealing by adding movable furniture. Beds, wardrobe and drawers are stored up on the ceiling, to be lowered quietly on white suspension cords at the touch of a tablet, like a scene change on a theatre stage. In theory this frees up floor space. Once he’s raised his bed in the morning, Dabdoub sometimes does yoga and meditation. In the evening, he can sit on the couch and project Netflix onto a blank wall, which would otherwise be occupied by the bed’s headboard.

Some techies, including Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, have their eye on Mars. Sankarshan Murthy, an Indian engineer who co-founded Bumblebee Spaces, thinks the ceiling should be “the next frontier”. He says his inspiration came when he moved to the Bay Area from Baltimore to work at Apple and later Tesla, and discovered how little space you get for your money. Silicon Valley is among the most expensive places to live on the planet. In Mountain View, where Google has its headquarters, the average rent has nearly doubled since 2010. Murthy’s solution of making tight spaces more adaptable is one of the most extreme experiments in solving the housing shortage in the Bay Area. He and a small team are developing their robotic furniture in a garage in San Francisco’s Mission District; one of Apple’s top designers has recently been taken on as an adviser, to improve the look and make the system smoother. So far Bumblebee’s furniture has been installed in only around a dozen apartments, but the company is expanding quickly.

Often the most successful technology firms reinvent existing ideas rather than come up with new ones. Facebook reimagined the college directory, Uber the taxi business. Bumblebee is putting a new twist on the Murphy bed, a mattress that folds down from the wall. That bed was named after another inventor in San Francisco, William Lawrence Murphy, who was living in a tiny one-room apartment in the early 1900s. According to lore, he was trying to woo an opera singer who refused to come to his bedroom. So he devised a way to fold up his mattress into the wall and convert the bedroom into a lounge. Lust fuelled innovation.

Living in small spaces is already common in many cities in Asia today, but economic forces are bringing the trend to the Bay Area. Techies often boast that they are less fussed about owning and acquiring things, which make tight quarters more bearable. Young people like to live in cities, where they don’t need to own a car and are close to restaurants and activities. Today around 7.2m people live in the Bay Area, but by 2040 this will rise to over 9m.

Tiny apartments are an obvious way to reduce the extortionate cost of living in Silicon Valley, but there are other solutions. Plenty of tech employees opt for communal homes that feel like college dorms. Some even live in trailers, campers or recreational vehicles, so that they can live close to their employers’ headquarters more affordably. I recently called the Sequoia Trailer Park in Redwood City, a short drive from many tech firms. Robin, the manager, told me that, yes, plenty of tech employees live there, but that, sorry, the waiting list is long, and he had no spaces available until 2021.

Micro units are not going to appeal to everyone. Murthy insists that we keep too much “junk” and are living through the era of “peak stuff”. He wants people to wake up and adopt simpler, clutter-free lives. Bumblebee’s drawers have cameras that act as a check-out system, scanning items as they are removed and put back, and alerting users when an item is untouched in any given month, so people can give away items they don’t need. For some this will feel too puritanical.

The technology also brings problems as well as solutions. Three of the current and former tenants I spoke to say the system occasionally goes haywire when they are trying to lower their bed. (The team at Bumblebee reboots the system remotely.) The mattress and cabinets contain sensors to detect anything or anyone beneath them so that tenants aren’t crushed. These are so sensitive that the furniture sometimes doesn’t come down at all – and it happens often enough for the system to be as irritating as it is useful.

And then there’s the question of cost. Micro units may be more affordable than other apartments, but they are still expensive. Dabdoub’s tiny room costs him $2,500 a month. I visited one 320-square-foot apartment in Nob Hill that is being renovated and turned into a Bumblebee unit. It has a tiny bedroom, bathroom and kitchen, where a mattress and storage unit will be attached to the ceiling, effectively turning a one-bedroom into a two-bedroom – but only if someone is willing to sleep next to a fridge and washing machine. It will probably rent out for a heady $3,400 a month. As I hear the staggering price tag, I wonder if this is just the latest example of “shrinkflation”, with companies reducing their portion sizes while spiking their prices.

But for every sceptical 30-something journalist, there is an eager recent college grad with an engineering degree, en route to San Francisco for a high-paying job and eager to see what the city has to offer. I suspect that micro units will be rented out faster than you can say “robotic furniture”.