Nissan's robo-chairs hint at autonomous cars' big pitch

How do you sell people on the idea of a self-parking car? Why, with an office ballet of self-tidying chairs, if you're Nissan at least. The Japanese firm has cooked up a flock of smart seating that automatically shuttle back to their respective desks when unruly human occupants leave them.

Dubbed the Intelligent Parking Chair, each seat might look like something you'd find in a regular office, but the chunky base hides some extra gadgetry.

Pranksters who might have visions of sending an office-full of their colleagues scurrying around like cats on Roombas will be disappointed, however. That's because the clap-to-reset system won't work if the chair is occupied.

There's actually a surprising amount of technology going into the bases of the modified chairs, not to mention the office environment they find themselves in. As well as motors, wheels, and a battery to power the whole thing, there are cameras mounted in the corners of the room to track whereabouts each seat is currently located.

A WiFi network controls the whole thing, triangulating each chair and then navigating them as a swarm back to their preset location, though to the user it's as simple as clapping loudly.

Of course, Nissan's goal here isn't to sell you smarter chairs. The whole thing is really designed to get you excited about self-parking cars, a feature offered on a number of models in the company's current line-up.

That too relies on cameras, among other sensors, to spot a parking space and automatically steer the car into it. It can handle both parallel spots as well as reverse into a gap.

Dubbed driver-convenience features, technologies like auto-park are increasingly showing up on more and more mainstream cars as the cost of sensors like cameras, radar, and infrared drops. Tesla, for instance, outfits all of its new Model S and Model X cars with the required hardware for AutoPilot semi-autonomous driving, even if buyers don't cough up the cash at purchase to actually activate the systems.

Meanwhile those sensors have become the basis for a number of self-driving car projects, including at Nissan. Back in 2013, for instance, we rode along in a prototype Leaf EV which could pilot itself, using the same cameras Nissan would normally use as part of its "Safety Shield" package that helps illuminate blind-spots among other things.

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Getting drivers comfortable with the car helping out is an important step on the path to familiarizing them with the idea of letting it take control altogether. While self-scooting seats might seem like a comedic way of illustrating that, it's this sort of automating of a mundane task – just like being stuck in rush-hour traffic – that car companies will need to convince us on if autonomous driving is to make it in the mass market.