There's nothing quite like an old rocking chair for finding your center and chilling out. Originally thought to have been developed as garden furniture, the rocker has now come full circle with the development of the SOFT Rocker by Professor Sheila Kennedy and architecture students from MIT. Installed at the Institute's Killian Court for the Festival of Art+Science+Technology (FAST), the teardrop-shaped outdoor rocking lounge chairs have solar panels over the top to provide power for up to three USB devices, and some after-dark lighting to allow the party to go on after the sun goes down.

The SOFT Rockers are made from flat MDF panels which have undergone an advanced digital curving process based on the zipshape process that was originally developed in Switzerland by Christoph Schindler. A lightweight Kuka robotic arm was used to remove portions of the structurally unsound wood to form an inside surface resembling a row of teeth.

"Zipshape can, in theory, be cut from any flat-packed material, but there are reasons to cut it out of MDF and then post-veneer the surfaces, as we did", the team's Phil Seaton told Gizmag. "Basically, the 'teeth' that we cut work best when they're cut out of some grain-free and laminate-free material: cutting out of solid or plywood can cause the teeth to chip out during the cutting process. On the other hand, cutting out of MDF alone (and not veneering afterwards) risks the material not being able to handle the tension loads, and breaking in the backing (which is generally only about 2mm thick or so). We experienced many such breakages; the veneer, in our case, serves both a structural and an aesthetic purpose."

Two such panels were then interlocked and glued together to form a curved structure, and then vacuum-sealed in plastic bags. When the glue had dried, they were removed from the bags, veneer applied to both sides and then placed back in the bags. Seaton said that the team "did try veneering first, in the flat, but found the panels lost some flexibility when done in this order."

While the robot arm probably could have taken care of the intricate pattern work too, this was done using a laser cutter or 3-axis CNC router. The wooden structure was then varnished to afford it some protection from the elements, although longer term installations will probably require something a bit more robust.

Gen II flexible solar panels from Global Solar were installed over the surface of the roof to feed a 12 amp-hour battery, which in turn provides power to devices such as laptops, smartphones and even chilled drinks dispensers connected via USB.

The 35W solar tracking system is "entirely human-powered - the idea has its roots in trying to invent a kind of culture surrounding power generation," says Seaton. "Rather than envisioning electricity generation as something centralized and off-site that embodies hidden processes and hidden social and environmental costs, we're imagining a future where 'soft' and decentralized generation of small amounts of power can actually become a hub for social and cultural activity."

"The SOFT Rockers, then, are intended to employ as much human intervention in the generation of electricity as possible: the rockers are free to rotate on their bases, and are positioned horizontally using the handle on the front. When the angle is correct, the rockers provide full shade for the person sitting inside. Then, once inside, the position of one's body to higher and lower seating positions causes the solar panel to face higher or lower positions in the sky. Here, the human power of balance is used as the 'second axis' of the solar tracker. An LCD panel inside the rocker tells you how well you're doing in terms of optimizing energy production from the available solar energy."

At the end of the FAST festival, the SOFT Rockers were sent to Kennedy and Violich Architecture for "cleaning and rehabilitation." Other projects created for the festival have now been dismantled and disposed of, but such has been the interest in the SOFT Rockers that the team is now working on the next stage in development and have promised to keep us posted.

Source: Core 77