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Robot Prototype Expresses Emotions
September 17, 2018

According to information provided by Cornell University, researchers, drawing inspiration from Charles Darwin’s statements on evolutionary theory, have now developed a prototype of a robot that can express “emotions” through changes in its outer surface.

“The aspect of touch has not been explored much in human-robot interaction, but I often thought that people and animals do have this change in their skin that expresses their internal state,” said Guy Hoffman, assistant professor and Mills Family Faculty Fellow in the Sibley School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering (MAE).

Based on this idea, Prof. Hoffman and students in his Human-Robot Collaboration and Companionship Lab have created a prototype of a robot with an outer skin that covers a grid of texture units (TUs) whose shapes are controlled by fluidic actuators, based on a design developed in the lab of Prof. Hoffman’s MAE colleague Rob Shepherd.

Published in the magazine IEEE Spectrum, doctoral student Yuhan Hu was lead author of a paper, “Soft Skin Texture Modulation for Social Robots,” that detailed the work.

Prof. Hoffman noted that the inspiration for designing a robot that gives off nonverbal cues through its outer skin comes from the animal world, based on the idea that robots shouldn’t be thought of in human terms.

“I’ve always felt that robots shouldn’t just be modeled after humans or be copies of humans,” he said. “We have a lot of interesting relationships with other species. Robots could be thought of as one of those ‘other species,’ not trying to copy what we do but interacting with us with their own language, tapping into our own instincts.”

The project involved the combination of two facets: the understanding of the nonverbal cues, unmistakable signals of arousal or anger, that animals exhibit, and the development of materials which can change their shape and properties on demand.

The team tried two different actuation control systems, with minimizing size and noise level a driving factor in both designs. “One of the challenges,” Prof. Hoffman explained, “is that a lot of shape-changing technologies are quite loud, due to the pumps involved, and these make them also quite bulky.”

Although Prof. Hoffman does not have a specific application for his robot, simply demonstrating that this can be done is a sizable first step. “It’s really just giving us another way to think about how robots could be designed,” he said.

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