Petting The Ultimate Pet

It is interesting that when we are young we cling to our cuddly toys for comfort, more so than humanoid toys. As we grow up, we are expected to leave those behind and many of us substitute cuddly pets such as cats or dogs to cover their role. “Get a dog” is the advice sometimes given to the able elderly with the explanation that it will prolong their life.

Cuddly robots have been around for some while now with the robotic baby harp seal Paro being the cuddliest. MIT’s Huggable, in its teddy bear guise, looks a close second, although it has a broader function in terms of chatting and verbal encouragement. The challenge with these robots is to make them responsive to you just like your cat or dog manages to be.

The trick is for the robot to sense your emotional state via the way you handle it, say hug, stroke, tickle its ears or idly play with its fur. You see it still has to have fur – seems to be deep in our DNA and points back to our evolutionary origins.

To investigate this aspect of the human-robot interaction, Yohanan and MacLean of UBC, Vancouver, have built their Haptic Creature (HC), round, furry with big ears and a tail (rather like a koala-sized mouse).

Covered in a wondrous array of touch sensors, it knows when it is being hugged, stroked, massaged, tickled or having its fur idly pulled. It breathes and purrs and has an accelerometer so it will know if it gets kicked, but has no teeth.

Thirty volunteers between the ages of 18 and 41 were locked away in a soundproof room for an hour or so each with HC. Video cameras were rolling of course. They were then encouraged to feel a range of emotional states such as pleased, depressed, happy, and miserable in random order and their response to HC recorded.

After analyzing the hours of video footage and the inevitable questionnaires, HC had been hugged, stroked, tickled and tossed up in the air with the participants wanting it to show sympathetic responses rather than mirroring their emotions.

It appears that HC’s back and sides were the most touched. It didn’t get its tummy tickled very much, not like our cats and dogs. Seems nobody had the courage to tickle the tummy of a giant mouse. Also, I’m sure that breathing and purring was preferable to being given good advice as you might get from MIT’s Huggable.

  1. S. Yohanan and K.E. MacLean, Int. J. Soc. Robot. DOI: 10.1007/s12369-011-0126-7

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