HuggieBot 2.0: Scientists develop sensitive robots

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With HuggieBot, a research team from the Haptic Intelligence department of the Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems in Stuttgart has developed a second version of a robot whose hugs are said to have a similarly pleasant, calming and comforting effect as those of humans. With their research work, the scientists around Katherine J. Kuebecker and Alexis E. Block want to improve haptic interactions with machines in order to be able to use “sensitive” robots, for example in the care and therapy of those in need, in such a way that people feel comfortable doing so .

Robots are conquering our everyday lives and are becoming social actors in human society. What are the possible development stages of the robots?

The aim was to first develop a robot that could hug a human and convey a similar feeling to that of a human. The researchers found that the robot must be warm, soft and human-like in size. In addition, he should have the ability to recognize people and adapt his hugs to the respective counterpart – for example in terms of body size and posture. Also, he should know himself when a hug should end.

The inner life of HuggiBot 2.0 is rather sober.

(Image: Max Planck Institute / Axel Griesch)

A first version of HuggieBot, which was based on a commercial robot, did not lead to the desired success, so the research team created a new robot, HuggieBot 2.0, from scratch. The basic structure of the robot consists of a frame with an inflatable, heated balloon as the main body. The scientists attached two arms to it, like those used in industrial robots. The head consists of a display. In order to make it haptically pleasant, they wrapped the robot in a soft jacket, a skirt and gave the gripping hands wool overcoats.

HuggieBot uses a camera on its head to capture its surroundings and recognize people who come near it. Then he asks her if he can get a hug and signals his willingness to do so with a friendly smile on the display. If the person approaches it, the robot adjusts its hug to the size and posture of the person. The robot uses sensors to determine the appropriate pressure for the hug. He also registers how strongly the person returns the hug and lets go as soon as the other person begins to break the hug.

This avoids hugs that are often felt to be uncomfortably long, as the scientists found out through studies with subjects who were willing to hug. The study participants each had eight hugs from HuggieBot. The researchers changed the functions in each case in order to determine how the subjects felt the hug. If the robot adapts to the height of the human and responds to the duration of the hug and ends it accordingly, then the experience was perceived more positively.

However, HuggieBot is just one of several projects being pursued by the science team in the Haptic Intelligence department. In addition, they are developing Hera, a robot that will help autistic children learn to touch other people appropriately. Robot Max is intended to support older people in rehabilitation measures. When performing light movement games, the robot is also touched and reacts to the interaction.


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