xBalloon: Animated Objects with Balloon Plastic Actuator

Soft actuators can be used to make transformable interfaces with hands-on training on robotic skills. Nevertheless, they are neither readily accessible nor user-friendly enough.

Hence, a recent study on arXiv.org proposes a novel mechanism for a simple and effective soft actuator that can be made easily and rapidly with daily materials and devices.

Image credit: Manfred Richter via Pixabay, free licence

It is composed of two inexpensive materials: a balloon and a polyethylene film. The shape change is triggered by the expansion of the balloon inside the polyethylene film. The direction of deformation is controlled by covering the balloon with the polyethylene film. Four experimental prototypes were fabricated in performance experiments like a swimming duck toy and a swaying tree.

A user study confirmed that the fabrication process of the actuator is easy and fun, and it may have a large variety of applications in an educational and entertainment context.

Shape-changing interfaces are promising for users to change the physical properties of common objects. However, prevailing approaches of actuation devices require either professional equipment or materials that are not commonly accessible to non-professional users. In this work, we focus on the controllable soft actuators with inflatable structures because they are soft thus safe for human computer interaction. We propose a soft actuator design, called xBalloon, that is workable, inexpensive and easy-to-fabricate. It consists of daily materials including balloons and plastics and can realize bending actuation very effectively. For characterization, we fabricated xBalloon samples with different geometrical parameters and tested them regarding the bending performance and found the analytical model describing the relationship between the shape and the bending width. We then used xBalloons to animate a series of common objects and all can work satisfactorily. We further verified the user experience about the the fabrication and found that even those with no prior robotic knowledge can fabricate xBalloons with ease and confidence. Given all these advantages, we believe that xBalloon is an ideal platform for interaction design and entertainment applications.

Research paper: Xie, H., Torii, T., Chiba, A., and Qi, Q., “xBalloon: Animated Objects with Balloon Plastic Actuator”, 2021. Link to the article: https://arxiv.org/abs/2109.04717

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