The nineties were full of toys and consumer products that were, in hindsight, so bad it’s a wonder we as a society haven’t facepalmed ourselves to death yet. The road to marketing hell is paved with good intentions. One memorable toy from the collective childhood of my generation is the water wiggler — otherwise known as the water tube toy, water snake, or those weird squidgy jelly tube things. Remember these? Sometimes they had glitter in them, or tiny plastic fish. You’d try to hold them, and they’d slip right through your hands even though you had a secure grip on the outside.
Just phallic enough to make an adult vaguely uncomfortable, water wigglers were ubiquitous for a few years, and apparently now they’re inspiring robot design. Applied robotics researchers at Stanford have developed a soft-bodied robot that can turn itself inside out, and they hope to use it for disaster relief.
What makes the new techno-tentacle work so well is exactly that principle of turning itself inside out. It’s made of a long, double-walled plastic tube filled with pressurized air — topologically, it’s a torus, a donut. This gives it a unique advantage when it comes to pathfinding, which the new robot can do with eerie smoothness.
“The body lengthens as the material extends from the end but the rest of the body doesn’t move,” said Elliot Hawkes, a visiting assistant professor from the University of California, Santa Barbara and lead author of the paper. “The body can be stuck to the environment or jammed between rocks, but that doesn’t stop the robot because the tip can continue to progress as new material is added to the end.”