Forget Roomba, your most important house robot could be the one that hugs you

Sure, so Alexa can play you the right song at the right time, and Google’s Duplex tech means you never need to phone up and book a restaurant again, but our relationship with machines still has the non-tactile frigidity of an unhappy marriage. However, that could all change thanks to work coming out of the Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems in Stuttgart, Germany. Researchers there have been developing a robot that is designed for giving you a hug. And, far from an amusing gimmick, they are convinced that it’s really important.

“A robot hugging a person is a good idea because people may crave the benefits that come from a hug at a time when they can’t get a hug from a person, due to factors such as distance, timing, and health,” Alexis Block, one of the lead researchers on the HuggieBot project, told Digital Trends. “We think a hugging robot could be beneficial in this case because a person can get the support they need without feeling self-conscious.”

The team’s HuggieBot is no diminutive robot beavering away, unnoticed, in the background like a Roomba vacuum cleaner. Instead, it’s a modified PR2 robot that stands as tall as an average human, which can be configured to be made extra soft using layers of foam, polyester, and other materials. Its hugs can be further modified according to the firmness of hug you desire (thanks to a pressure sensor) and even the option of having them heated.

Block and colleagues were interested to test people’s response to the robot. Thirty participants were involved in the study, each of whom received 12 different machine hugs, which they then gave their feedback on. In addition to narrowing down the robo-hugs that people enjoy (really tight, slightly squeezy, soft, and warm), the researchers found that receiving a hug makes people feel a bit more fondly toward robots. Hey, maybe that is one way to break the imminent news that a robot has stolen your job!

“We are currently building a new robotic platform that will be better suited for this specific type of social-physical human-robot interaction — [meaning that] it will be able to give even better hugs,” Block continued. “Once this new platform is complete, we plan to investigate how hugging a robot compares to hugging another person. We’d like our future robot to autonomously determine when to lift its arms and ask for a hug, rather than be prompted by the experimenter, and to match the approaching user’s arm positions. We are also interested in enabling people to send customized hugs to each other, and teaching a robot to determine how a person is feeling and try to autonomously provide the appropriate emotional support.”

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