updated 4/10/2012 12:50:34 PM ET 2012-04-10T16:50:34

Spending a lonely day at home? Perhaps a robotic mole, living underneath your coffee table, can keep you company. Media design researchers at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology in South Korea have created a table that has a small molehill that glides along the surface and plays games on the tabletop. The researchers first showed their so-called MoleBot at SIGGRAPH, a graphics and interactive conference, in August 2011. It won the grand prize at the French virtual reality conference Laval Virtual, on March 30.

The surface of the MoleBot table is covered with more than 15,000 hexagonal pins, packed side by side like cells in a honeycomb so they make a smooth, silver surface. As the MoleBot moves underneath the pins, it makes a molehill that glides along underneath the pins, so it looks like a mysterious animal running underneath a silver cloth. A layer of spandex between the MoleBot and the pins reduces friction, helping the bot move up to 16 inches (40 centimeters) a second, according to the paper the researchers submitted to SIGGRAPH.

Remember that kindergarten demonstration of how magnets work? Kids can move one magnet around on the surface of a table without directly touching it, if they drag it along using another magnet held underneath the table. The MoleBot uses the same principle to move. The plastic bot on the surface of the table, underneath the pins, has a strong neodymium magnet inside. A neodymium magnetic stage underneath the table drags the bot along invisibly. Users control the stage with a joystick or with gestures that a depth camera detects.  

The results are surprisingly appealing and probably tell a lot about people's capacity to anthropomorphize anything small and round that moves. The MoleBot can push little spools along its pin tabletop or attract and drag magnetic objects placed on the table. The researchers created tiny white trees that hold round magnetic apples the MoleBot gathers when it passes the trees. The robotic molehill can play "MoleBot soccer" by fighting over a ball with a small, two-wheeled RollBot the researchers made. With the depth-detecting camera, users can call the MoleBot over by presenting it with a large lollipop or have it follow their hands. 

"It could be a new game interface, in which people build a small world on a table," the researchers wrote in their abstract for SIGGRAPH.

Watch the MoleBot at work in a video by the researchers:

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