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.”

Features

Has Columbus, Ohio raised its IQ yet? A progress report from the mayor

Two years ago, the city of Columbus in Ohio received $40 million to pursue smart city initiatives. So, what’s happened since then? We spoke with its mayor, Andrew Ginther, to discuss progress and what’s ahead.
Movies & TV

Sit down and watch some of the best stand-up comedy on Netflix

Feeling a little funny? There are hundreds of hilarious comedy specials out there, and you can't be expected to comb through them all. Lucky for you, we've compiled a list of the best stand-up specials on Netflix.
Social Media

‘YouTube Rewind 2018’ is about to become its most disliked video ever

YouTube is about to achieve a record it really doesn't want — that of "most-disliked video." Yes, its annual recap of featuring popular YouTubers has gone down really badly this year.
Emerging Tech

Transplanted pig hearts show promise in baboon trials. Are humans next?

Researchers in Germany have successfully transplanted modified pig hearts into baboons. The results take us one step closer to ending organ transplant waiting lists for good. Here's why.
Deals

Take to the skies with these 5 drones on sale for under $50

On the hunt for some cool tech for under $50? We've rounded up 5 drones under $50 that you can still get before Christmas. These models are great for kids, adults, and anyone just getting started with drones.
Emerging Tech

With this robotic garage, retrieving your car is like using a vending machine

Remembering where we parked our cars can be a real pain. But what if our cars came to find us, rather than the other way around? A new automated robot parking valet system aims to help.
Emerging Tech

A lidar-equipped truck knows exactly how much de-icer to apply on roads

Lidar is best known as the laser-based technology that helps self-driving cars sense their surroundings. But the city of Knoxville has another, more seasonal use for it: De-icing roads.
Cars

Best Products of 2018

Our reception desk has so many brown boxes stacked up, it looks like a loading dock. We’re on a first-name basis with the UPS guy. We get new dishwashers more frequently than most people get new shoes. What we’re trying to say is: We…
Emerging Tech

This unusual nature-inspired robot is equally at home on land or in the water

This intriguing, nature-inspired robot may look unusual, but it's impressively capable of moving on both land and water without problem. Heck, it can even travel on ice if necessary.
Emerging Tech

This cryptocurrency wallet for kids isn’t nearly as stupid as it sounds

So you’ve taught your 6-year-old child to read, write, and play nice with others. What’s next? Give them a base understanding of cryptocurrency, of course. This Kickstarter aims to help.
Emerging Tech

Light, speed: Lighting kit for DJI Mavic 2 lets you fly and film in the dark

Lume Cube, maker of small battery-powered LED lights for mobile photography, has announced a new lighting kit built specifically for the DJI Mavic 2 -- the first of its kind. Already our favorite drone, this makes the Mavic 2 even better.
Emerging Tech

Prepare for liftoff: Here are all the important upcoming SpaceX rocket launches

From ISS resupply missions to a host of communication and scientific satellite launches, SpaceX has a busy year ahead. Here's a rundown of some of the company's most important missions slated for the next year.
Emerging Tech

Virgin Galactic’s latest test flight takes it to the edge of space

Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic has successfully carried out its fourth powered flight in Mojave, California. It was the company's most ambitious test flight yet -- and bodes well for the future.
Emerging Tech

We’re going to the Red Planet! All the past, present, and future missions to Mars

SpaceX isn't the only organization pining to visit the Red Planet. Here's a detailed list of all operational and planned missions to Mars, along with explanations of their objectives, spacecraft details, and mission proposals.