Thursday, May 22, 2008

Strokable robot rabbit talks with touch

A pet robot that communicates with humans only by touch is being used to probe the way the oft-neglected sense bolsters our emotional relationships. The findings could be used to make humans' relationships with robots and other pieces of technology more emotionally rewarding.
Steve Yohanan at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, says that robotics researchers too often neglect haptics – touch – as a form of communication. Vision and sound have been concentrated on instead.But missing out tactility has a detrimental effect on the quality of the interaction, he says. "I'm trying to provide a deeper experience by adding touch," says Yohanan.
"I had a cat for many years, and what I miss most about interacting with her is touch," he says. "For example, the cat would sit in my lap while I worked at the computer – I would scratch the top of her head and feel her purr."

Purring robot:
Yohanan's new robot, dubbed the Haptic Creature, is designed to recreate that touch-based communication between pet and owner to inject an element of emotion into human-robot interactions. Working out how to do that could have applications ranging from toys to domestic robot servants. The creature is around 35cm long and has shorter fur on its belly and the back of its two "ears" (see image, right).
Using pressure sensors, the Haptic Creature can detect the way it is touched or stroked. It can only respond with breathing movements of its body, inaudible purring vibrations, or by moving its ears.
But even those simple responses to touch can elicit a range of emotions in humans, says Yohanan. "Our preliminary investigation showed participants could identify most of the emotional responses [across a scale from negative to positive]," he says.
Sommer Gentry, an applied mathematician at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, US, says that the importance of haptic interaction to the way people use technology has long been neglected.

Dancing arm:
"I am not sure whether it is the technical challenges of human-robot haptic interaction, or under-appreciation of the potential for these technologies that make this a relatively immature area," she says.
In 2003, Gentry programmed a robotic arm to perform a random sequence of hand movements associated with swing-dance moves.
By isolating the movements in this way, she found that a human swing dancer could tell the sequence of moves using touch alone, without needing to observe the movements of the arm or of a dancer.
Steve Yohanan presented the Haptic Creature at the Artificial Intelligence and Simulation of Behaviour (AISB) 2008 Convention in Aberdeen, Scotland in April.
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