Trudging away from a particularly disappointing demo, I was feeling pretty down. The halls of CES 2016 are alive with people, but everyone’s running to their next meeting, with no time to slow down, let alone exchange a few friendly words to a momentarily disillusioned tech writer in need of some encouragement. A few minutes later, I was smiling, and happier than I had been for hours. Why? I’d just hugged a teddy bear, reason alone for my spirits being lifted, but to make matters even better, it had hugged me back.
Just to clarify here, it wasn’t a real bear, or someone dressed up in a bear suit. It was a medium sized cuddly toy, which was connected wirelessly to another bear, that was being hugged by Parihug co-founder Harshita Gupta. Parihug is the name of the startup that wants to change the way we communicate with loved ones, particularly kids, over a long distance.
While I may have exaggerated my situation when I met the Parihug team and squeezed the bear, it did cheer me up; and that’s the entire basis behind Parihug’s existence. Gupta, who is a senior at a school in California, told me she thinks modern digital communication methods lack one crucial thing — tactility. The Parihug bear solves this problem by remotely linking the two bears together, and the digitally transferring the feeling of a another person’s presence or touch in a reassuring, physical way.
Of course, it’s not really meant for temporarily saddened reporters, but for children, absent partners, the elderly, or the infirm. Modern life regularly takes us away from people that matter to us, and this is a fun, practical, and very cute solution. We know the bear isn’t really hugging us, and it’s not a real substitute for a human being’s touch, but the magic is there because someone, somewhere is making the bear happily vibrate in your arms. The idea for Parihug came when Gupta’s co-founder Xyla Foxlin, an aerospace engineering student at Case Western Reserve University, found herself in a long-distance relationship, and wanted a more personal, physical way to communicate.
The two met at a hackathon and came up with the idea and a prototype — that’s the Baymax doll covered in cables and sensors you see in the photos. The Big Hero 6 doll has been retired — They’re acutely aware Disney’s not a fan of that sort of customization — and the project has evolved to become the prototype bears shown off in January.
You won’t find one of those big pressure-sensing boxes inside Parihug’s bear, because that would make it feel like a piece of technology, and require being squeezed in a particular way to activate. The team wanted the bear to react to a gentle hug almost anywhere on its body, and remain soft and huggable; so they used clever analog pressure sensing strips that become part of the bear’s fur. It’s a neat solution, and doesn’t create any unpleasant lumps and bumps inside the bear’s body. Theoretically, the strips can be placed elsewhere, like in the paws, to provide different reactions or feedback.
Parihug intends to sell a pair of Wi-Fi connected bears later in the year through a crowdfunding campaign, but that’s just the start. Building on the personal nature of Parihug, the company plans to sell a kit to transform any cuddly toy into a smart, connected cuddly toy, too. It’s a great idea. After all, who reading this can remember being fondly attached to a special toy when they were young? Associating it with a parent’s touch may have made it even more special, and that’s the potential of Parihug’s cool project.
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