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Haptics Reaches the Emotions

How often do we use the sense of touch to increase our sense of closeness to a person or to an object? Touching, stroking, hugging, fondly caressing, absently running fingers, playing with hair, the list is endless.

Touch is essential for emotional bonding, yet it is often ignored in any interface. Now, the fields of robotics, have started to explore the area of haptics, with tangible results we can all use.

Steve Yohanan at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, has stated (accurately) that robotics researchers too often neglect haptics as a form of communication. Vision and sound have been concentrated on instead.

He has been working to prove that adding touch increases the quality of any interaction. What is true for robots, is also true for avatars.

"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."

This was inspiration for his haptic robot, pictured below:

Credit: Steve Yohanan

It looks a little like a large rabbit, and that is deliberate. The cuteness factor is a definite plus to positive interaction. At 35 cm (14 inches) long, the robot is the size of a cat, and is covered in long, shaggy fur. Shorter fur covers its belly and the back of its ears. The overall effect is such that the robot is completely encased in fur however it is positioned, or held.

The robot's name is the Haptic Creature, and it has been used for the past few months, to test different ways the sense of touch can elicit a response in the person doing the touching. Responses of a person being touched are not a part of this study.

Haptic Creature's fur covers a complex, and completely surrounding network of pressure pads, each linked to circuitry recording the intensity and duration of any touch. By processing the responses, the robot can work out exactly how it was touched: stroked, tickled, prodded, pushed, kneaded; literally any sensation pattern.

The robot's own responses are what separate it for the user, from a cuddly toy. It can move its body enough to represent the rising and falling chest of breathing, or it can send vibrations back to the user, in a manner similar to rumble. Finally, it can and does, waggle its ears in an agitated or contented fashion.

Even when you know that the robot is only following its programming - this is not a sentient machine - it does feel very much alive when you combine all three methods of feedback. In all cases, it gives feedback only in response to touch.

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," he says.

In other words, test subjects can tell how the robot is 'feeling' based on the response it gives to the type of touch stimulus they give. The robot's feelings are not real, but those generated by the user in response to the robot's behaviour concerning being touched, are.

The hope of this study is to make the human relationship with robots more emotionally rewarding. However, it is also significant ammunition for the necessity of including support for telehaptic interaction between humans, online.

Further Reading

Steve Yohanan

The Haptic Creature Project: Social Human-Robot Interaction through Affective Touch (PDF - 623kb)

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