The Huggable: A Therapeutic Robotic Companion for Relational, Affective Touch


concept photo
A new type of robotic companion inspired by pet-therapy research. Unlike current robotic companions, the Huggable features a full-body sense of touch; silent, smooth voice-coil actuators; and an embedded, networked PC.

Enhanced Life
Over the past few years, the Robotic Life Group at the MIT Media Lab has been developing "sensitive skin" and novel actuator technologies in addition to our artificial-intelligence research. The Huggable combines these technologies in a portable robotic platform that is specifically designed to leave the lab and move to healthcare applications.

Goals
The ultimate goal of this project is to evaluate the Huggable's usefulness as a therapy for those who have limited or no access to companion-animal therapy. In collaboration with nurses, doctors, and staff, the technology will soon be applied in pilot studies at hospitals and nursing homes. By combining Huggable's data-collection capabilities with its sensing and behavior, it may be possible to determine early onset of a person's behavior change or detect the onset of depression. The Huggable may also improve day-to-day life for those who may spend many hours in a nursing home alone staring out a window, and, like companion-animal therapy, it could increase their interaction with other people in the facility.

Innovations
The core technical innovation is the "sensitive skin" technology, which consists of temperature, electric-field, and force sensors all over the surface of the robot. Unlike other robotic applications where the sense of touch is concerned with manipulation or obstacle avoidance, the sense of touch in the Huggable is used to determine the affective content of the tactile interaction. The Huggable's algorithms can distinguish petting, tickling, scratching, slapping, and poking, among other types of tactile interactions. By combining the sense of touch with other sensors, the Huggable detects where a person is in relation to itself and responds with relational touch behaviors such as nuzzling.

Most robotic companions use geared DC motors, which are noisy and easily damaged. The Huggable uses custom voice-coil actuators, which provide soft, quiet, and smooth motion. Most importantly, if the Huggable encounters a person when it tries to move, there is no risk of injury to the person.

Another core technical innovation is the Huggable' combination of 802.11g networking with a robotic companion. This allows the Huggable to be much more than a fun, interactive robot. It can send live video and data about the person's interactions to the nursing staff. In this mode, the Huggable functions as a team member working with the nursing home or hospital staff and the patient or resident to promote the Huggable owner's overall health.

Vision
As poorly staffed nursing homes and hospitals become larger and more overcrowded, new methods must be invented to improve the daily lives of patients or residents. The Huggable is one of these technological innovations. Its ability to gather information and share it with the nursing staff can detect problems and report emergencies. The information can also be stored for later analysis by, for example, researchers who are studying pet therapy.

Emerging Technologies Sketch

Contact
Walter Dan Stiehl
Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab, Robotic Life Group
wdstiehl (at) mit.edu

Contributors
Cynthia Breazeal
Jeff Lieberman
Levi Lalla
Allan Maymin
Daniel Fuentes
Aseem Kishore
Jonathan Salinas
Robert Toscano
ChengHau Tong
Louis Basel
Roshni Cooper
Heather Knight
Scott Purchase
Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab