PUSH A BUTTON, TRANSFORM A ROOM
BY Audrey Hoffer
Special to The Washington Post
You wouldn’t think that having your mother along with you and your husband on a weekend trip across country, let alone in a tiny, 450-square-foot apartment, would be a lot of fun.
But Heidi Grütter, who lives in San Diego, said it couldn’t have worked out better when they stayed together in a Boston Airbnb. “Me, my husband, Jimmy [Kan] and Mom,” she said. “It turned out as perfectly as it could.”
They didn’t sleep in triple bunk beds pushed against the wall, but the couple did sleep in a double bed that literally rolled out of sight in the morning.
“We said, ‘Alexa, ask Ori to close the bed!’ and the bed moved into the wall unit,” Grütter said, or in Ori-speak, into living room mode. Then the living room got bigger.
Ori is the revolutionary new concept in small space living -- a robotic furniture system that morphs into a bedroom, office/dressing room or living room at the touch of a keypad or an app voice command. The system enables people to use one room in several ways by moving furniture.
“Why should you waste precious space in a studio apartment with a bed that takes up so much of the room? Ori lets you win back space for your living room when you’re not sleeping,” said Adrian Sanchez, who lives in the Washington area.
He and his fiancee stayed in the same apartment as Grütter, at the Watermark Seaport in Boston, in which an Ori system is installed. Ori, the company, rents this apartment through Airbnb as a pilot to gather feedback about the system from users.
“Having everything all packed away is stylish. When there’s a bed in the room, there’s not much else you can do,” said Lee Dilton-Hill, who lives in Rhode Island and also rented that apartment when she visited Boston.
“For me, the system was intuitive and not overly complicated. I’m tech-savvy, but I think anyone can pick it up easily if they read the instructions,” she said.
“Urbanization is unstoppable. Cities are growing by leaps and bounds, so we better come up with new solutions to make them smarter, because that’s where people work and where they want to live,” said Hasier Larrea, the chief executive and brains behind Ori. “We have to rethink how we fit more people in, and how we organize the spaces they live and work in.”
Today’s younger generations want to live downtown, but that comes with a financial challenge. Either they have a lot of money or they live in a prison cell, he said.
“This is where we come in. We want to change the paradigm to living large in a small footprint. People think square footage and functionality are linearly related, but that’s the old paradigm,” Larrea said.
Larrea, 29, was a Massachusetts Institute of Technology student from San Sebastian, in Basque Country, Spain, from 2011 to 2015, studying mechanical engineering and design. While there, he led a student research project with professor Kent Larson in the MIT Media Lab, a creative hub of engineers, architects, magicians, doctors and artists whose synergy inspires them to dream up new ideas about hot topics in today’s society.
Robotic furniture was his team’s idea. “In 2015, my team of four and I decided we’d done enough research, and it was time to spin out our idea and bring it into the market with the help of the MIT Entrepreneurship Center,” Larrea said.
He looked for developers with an imaginative mind-set and willingness to take a risk. More than 10 across the country and one in Canada signed on. “They really got it. They saw the potential and decided to join the pilot program,” Larrea said.
Next year, the company will install 500 to 1,000 units across the United States and Canada. “They won’t be prototypes but the real thing,” he said. People will be able to rent or buy apartments with the Ori system. The company isn’t yet selling directly to consumers.
Valor Development in Washington was one of the first to install Ori in one apartment. It’s in the Vintage, an 85-unit rental building on 16th Street NW in the Mount Pleasant neighborhood.
When you walk into an Ori studio, you see a fully outfitted kitchen on one wall, table and chairs, couch and an elegant wood credenza with shelves, drawers and TV screen. So there’s a living room and dining area. But, you ask, where is the bedroom?
Press a button on the touch pad adhered to the credenza, and you’ll experience the magic.
Walls start moving. A bed glides out of one side of the credenza ready for you to plop down for a nap or night’s sleep. You’re now in bedroom mode. The living room, on the other side of the credenza, has become smaller, although still comfortable for a couch-sleeping guest.
Next morning, you push another button or tell Alexa, Amazon’s voice assistant, to ask Ori to close the bed and move into closet mode. The bed slides partially back into the credenza, and a walk-in closet emerges.
The credenza transforms into several furniture pieces, with different functions offering varied uses of the space.
The Ori system has several layers:
- Muscle is the black track along the baseboard that’s plugged into a conventional electric outlet. It powers the furniture’s movement.
- Skeleton is like a car chassis. You don’t see it.
- Brain is the computer in the touch pad.
- Skin is the wood or laminate used to make the credenza.
The credenza looks like an ordinary piece of furniture, yet it provides solutions to the most common complaints of studio renters -- not being able to divide the space or hide the bed, and lack of storage.
“From a geeky perspective, Ori was of real interest to us as a way of making a tight square footage more appealing and marketable. This is important when building in dense cities where the cost of land is steep,” said Felipe Serpa, development manager for Valor. “Our two founders have backgrounds in engineering and technology, so their interests coincided well with what Ori is doing.”
The model unit in the Vintage is open for public viewing through the building’s leasing office. You can drop by or make an appointment through thevintage.com .
Samuels & Associates maintains two Ori-occupied apartments in the Continuum, a 325-unit rental in the Allston-Brighton neighborhood of Boston. They’ve been well received, and the company has ordered four more installations, said Tom Bloch, a principal with Samuels.
“When we first put Ori in our model unit, a prospective tenant came by, took a look and got excited,” he said. “We ended up leasing the model to him. He stayed 18 months. During that time, he gave feedback to Hasier [Larrea] on how to improve the system. A few months prior to moving out, Hasier redid the unit with an updated model of Ori at no cost to us.”
Other building residents regularly ask the property manager whether they could get the system installed in their second bedroom to make room for an office, Bloch said.
In New York, Maria Masi, vice president of multifamily development for Brookfield, said the company is always looking for innovative ways to enhance its residents’ experiences and incorporate the latest in design, convenience and style.
The company installed Ori in one unit of the Eugene, an 844-unit, 62-floor rental building on West 31st Street. “People can get a sense of how they would use it and how they could transform the space,” she said. The unit is open for public viewing through the building’s leasing office, or you can set up an appointment through theeugenenyc.com .
Larrea said: “We’re developing a deeper, wider strategy for the future of urban spaces. With the same robotic skeleton and muscle, we can design furniture skins for many demographics at many price points. This is just the tip of the iceberg. Ori will surely go global.”