Hasier Larrea has a vision of how the real estate industry will be disrupted by the Internet of Things. He and his team have launched MorphLab – a start-up out of MIT that aims to maximize urban space and enable “living large” within a small footprint.
Larrea explains that as a society, we assign specific functionality to discrete spaces, resulting in all kinds of rooms – a living room, a dining room, a bedroom, a bathroom. And, this is how people have been designing homes for more than 2,000 years. MorphLab intends to change this paradigm by augmenting spaces through architectural robots, so that “space killers” such as sofas and beds don’t take up space when we don’t need them. The interview with Hasier Larrea follows:
I’m from the Basque region of Spain and I recently completed my Master’s in Media Arts and Sciences from MIT. My team and I joined the MIT Global Founder’s Skills Accelerator program over the summer to explore how all our research and technology could be applied to the market right now. So, we spun off MorphLab from the MIT Media Lab with the Accelerator’s help. And now we are out in the wild raising money and trying to get some traction.
Can you briefly describe the MorphLab concept, and the problem your technology solves?
At MorphLab, we are focused on creating hyper-efficient and responsive urban living spaces. We’re leveraging the smart and connected aspects of the Internet of Things to disrupt the real estate industry.
Today, more than 54% of the world’s population lives in cities, but space is limited and costs are skyrocketing. Many of us want to live in vibrant, workable, central locations where the action happens – but many people are all being priced out of these vibrant cities. (Larrea explains this problem further in his TEDx Cambridge talk.)
Since square footage is the biggest cost in real estate, solutions as micro-units have become more popular, but no one wants to live in that type of a cramped environment. During our research at the MIT Media Lab, we uncovered two basic things. One, we don’t need as much space as we think (because we are surrounded by these “space killers” such as sofas and beds and tables); and two, space augmentation through robotics can create larger spaces.
MorphLab’s goal is to deploy this idea at scale by creating tools and systems for architects and designers, almost like Legos, that are smart and connected.
Do you have early validation of your idea?
After four years of research, we posted a video for our prototype – this shows how a 200 square foot space can be used as a space three times larger – the video got over a million views in YouTube in less than a month! So, we saw that there was this appetite because there were big problems that need to be solved in the space of robotics and architecture.
Your video shows walls and beds moving around, but how does that actually work?
The idea here is to bring the world of robotics and architecture together. We tried to think about all the systems that have been applied in many other different systems in places like cars, appliances, and how we could start thinking about those components in the context of furniture and architectural elements. How do we turn static and dumb architectural elements and furniture into dynamic and intelligent components of your living space?
We started thinking about appliances like garage door openers and how we could apply technologies that are already in mainstream, to systems like walls, tables, and beds. But – and this is very important – this is not about just creating a new closet that moves or a bed that drops from the ceiling because there are examples of that already. We are trying to design on a scalable strategy by creating a platform.
What are some of your challenges?
We are trying to design those components, those mechanical systems, those electronics so that we can have basically an infrastructure that could allow the design of endless possibilities. So, again, we are not claiming to be the first ones doing a moving wall or a dropdown bed, but we are actually creating a new ecosystem that allows us to create many of these systems very quickly and be ahead of the curve for understanding the needs of the users. So, I would say scalability is a challenge, as well as acceptance in the real estate industry that isn’t used to innovation.
Can you explain how the Internet of Things is involved and what that connection is?
Yes, the first part is the dynamic system – how do you effortlessly transform the space? But, the second part is how do you make all these systems intelligent and smart? And that’s where the Internet of Things comes into play.
I believe the smart home is still in its infancy, meaning we are still talking about the peripherals in the home – such as connected thermostats, connected lights, connected speaker systems. But, no one is talking about connected architectural elements or connected furniture. And if you think about your home, arguably those are the things that really give personality to your home, the things that are more predominant in your space.
By connecting to the Internet of Things, all of a sudden your couch, your table, your closet, your wall could also talk to other connected devices, and with the idea that they not only have the potential to connect, but they also have the potential to be a hub, to connect other smart devices.
We’re creating a platform that allows the designers, developers, and software developers in the world to start playing with those hardware devices and start developing apps, it opens up a whole app ecosystem, the same way mobile phones did it. We believe the home of the future is going to be a platform, and everyone will be able to customize their experience.
What are your go-to-market plans for MorphLab, and who are you targeting as your customers?
We are a B2B company and we are going to sell to real estate developers with the idea that developers could purchase some of the systems, and they would rent them at a premium. For example, the “creative class” is getting priced out of the market. Instead of turning to micro-units, which are dysfunctional, we can bring technology to make a smaller space act like the bigger studio but with a lower cost.
Any ideas on where your first installations will be?
Our plan is to start in Boston. A good example of a neighborhood that is pushing the envelope with the smaller units is the Seaport District. In 2016, we’ll bring the pilot program to other cities, like New York, DC, and maybe San Francisco. The whole plan is to use these first apartments as a pilot – a “living laboratory” – so that we can have people interacting with them, and giving us feedback. We want to record some of the usage of the systems to see how valuable they are, to see what things work, and what things don’t work so well so we can keep refining the product.
In essence, we want to use architectural robots to augment the capabilities of our homes – whether small or larger – to change the way people relate to and experience their living spaces.
Photos courtesy of MorphLab.