Future Cinema

Course Site for Future Cinema 1 (and sometimes Future Cinema 2: Applied Theory) at York University, Canada

Reach out and touch (hug) someone

Help out that long-distance relationship, or give grandma a hug — via your phone:

From The New York Times

Does Grandma Need a Hug? A Robotic Pillow Can Help

November 11, 2004

With e-mail, cellphones and other technology, it’s easier than ever for grandparents to keep in touch with their far-flung children and grandchildren.

But nothing has been able to replicate the physical interaction that comes with an occasional visit.

Now, robotics researchers at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh have designed a soft, huggable pillow that uses sensing and wireless phone technology to provide a physical touch, and thus better social and emotional support, for distant family members.

The pillow, called the Hug, was developed after the researchers studied how robotics could improve products the elderly use every day. The research team, financed by a grant from the National Science Foundation, came up with 53 different ideas for products. They decided to begin by designing what eventually became the Hug because their research found that what older people often needed most was emotional support, said Jodi Forlizzi, an assistant professor of design and human-computer interaction at Carnegie Mellon.

“Intimate communication is important for maintaining mental and physical health,” she said.

The device, which is about the size of a throw pillow but as firm as a seat cushion, is shaped like a person about to give a hug, with two arms reaching up and out from a small torso. The outside is covered in velour, “making it soft and plush and something you would want to hold up against your body,” said Carl DiSalvo, a doctoral student in design at Carnegie Mellon who worked on the project.

The Hug is intended to be used within an extended family: for instance, between a grandfather and his far-away granddaughter, who would each have a device. “This is not meant to share hugs with a hundred people,” Mr. DiSalvo said. “This is to be used with those closest to you.”

To send a hug, the grandchild would squeeze the left paw of her device and speak her grandfather’s name into a microphone in the top of the torso. Voice recognition software in the processor in the device identifies the name and matches it to a preset phone number corresponding to the other Hug. The girl’s Hug calls the grandfather’s, which lights up and plays sounds. To accept the hug, he squeezes the left paw and says hello, opening a direct voice link between the two.

Once the connection is established, the girl squeezes or pats the device. Sensors convert those motions into a data stream that is sent to the other Hug and converted on that end into vibrations through small motors embedded in the device. Thermal fibers around the Hug’s belly radiate heat that increases with time. The hug is ended by pressing the right paw and saying goodbye.

If someone is not home to receive a hug, the other person can leave a message that includes voice and vibration patterns. The Hug can store up to four messages.

Unlike a regular phone, for which wrong numbers are a way of life, there is no need to fear getting a hug in error. Each person you would want to hug has to be added to your network, much like a cellphone is programmed with personalized rings.

Mr. DiSalvo admitted that the Hug “gets some chuckles.” After it was developed, researchers showed it to residents at a nursing home they work with in Pittsburgh. The reaction was generally positive, Professor Forlizzi said, although there were plenty of opinions about the pillow’s color and shape.

“Men tend to react differently than women,” she said. “People are split on whether it should have a personality of its own,” or just follow the lead of the person giving the hug.

Although the Hug was designed so parents and grandparents could interact with their children and grandchildren, Francine Gemperle, a researcher who worked on the project, said it could help long-distance relationships of all kinds. “I could picture boyfriends and girlfriends who live far apart using it, or a husband or wife taking it when they go on a business trip,” she said.

That is, if the Hug is ever sold. The job of the researchers at Carnegie Mellon was to design the product, not to develop a device that is ready to be mass produced. “It would need to go through product development, where people may want to change its appearance and make it more adaptable to different-sized people,” Ms. Gemperle said. “I certainly hope that someone picks it up and does something with it.”

But for now the researchers at Carnegie Mellon are moving on to their next product: a smart chair. The prototype, which will be ready in December, will be outfitted with sensors that can send reminders to people to remain active, like waking them up if they fall asleep in an uncomfortable position.

“Many products are not serving the needs of this aging population,” Professor Forlizzi said. “Intelligent technology can help.”

Fri, November 4 2005 » Future Cinema, cell phone, distributed networks, mobility

One Response

  1. Larissa Fan November 9 2005 @ 12:50 pm

    I just found this too sad. How can a pillow possibly make up for not getting enough hugs? – Larissa

One Ping

  1. Reveillon 2011 January 30 2011 @ 9:34 pm