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This Robotic Fur Patch is Cooler Than Your Cat

Think of how much you love your smartphone. Now think of how much you love your pet. What if the two were the same?

In 2008, Steve Yohanan and members of the SPIN lab at the University of British Columbia told the world about a furry, touch-sensitive robot that they named Haptic Creature.

Three years later, they introduced us to an even coyer contraption that Anna Flagg, its creator, has named Cuddlebot.

Cuddlebot looks a little like the fluffy creature Tribble from Star Trek, and is similarly covered in a shaggy coat of ultra-sensitive fur. Perhaps more precisely, the Cuddlebot is a well wired mat of fur. The fur and the piezoelectric sheath beneath lets the creature sense and differentiate between 9 kinds of touch gestures. It can tell if someone’s stroking it or tickling it or scratching it, and, after a while it can tell who those gestures were coming from.

The SPIN lab’s goal is to test if machines can eventually infer the emotion that motivates a human gesture when they are touched. Yohanan, who built Haptic Creature, is finishing work on an improved prototype. Flagg showed Cuddlebot off for the first time the IEEE Haptics Symposium in spring last year, and will present it at a conference in Barcelona in the coming two weeks.

Other members of the SPIN lab are training machines to infer emotions from the gestures they recognize–the second part of the grand plan. Eventually, Flagg told me, bots like the Cuddlebot could become companions with therapeutic uses in hospitals. Cuddlebot has already participated in tests with kids and probably unsurpringly, was a hit.

But healthy adults could use Cuddlebot too. I’ve written about a cell phone hack that sent tactile messages to your conversation partner as you talked. I mentioned this to Flagg, who agreed that a Cuddlebot-inspired furry cover may come in handy in such an instance. One day, it may even correctly infer the emotion being sent. Flagg’s collaborator Karen MacLean has said that a pocket-sized Cuddleblot, perhaps tucked away in your purse, could be useful as a portable stress detector. Connected with your phone, it might know when to bother you with certain alerts, and when not to.

There’s plenty of evidence to suggest that hands-free gestures will make it big in the next few months and years. Just look at all the Kinect hacks out there. But then I learn about touchy-feely tech like the Cuddlebot, and can’t wait to see all the different reasons we’ll want to wrap our fingers around our gadgets in the years ahead.

One thing does worry me though. I already spend way too many hours clutching my cold, brittle iPhone. If it learned to purr and mew, there’s a fair chance my bond with it would run deeper. That’s part of the point Flagg is trying to make.