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The Cuddlebot Is a Robotic Tribble

By Norman Chan

They just don't multiply or annoy Klingons...yet.

These days, human-machine interaction is a pretty hot topic of academic study. Whether it's the psychological effect of drone warfare on pilots or the emotional toll of killing a pleading animatronic, the rise of a robots of all shapes and sizes in our everyday lives fascinates academics and merits research. The University of British Columbia's SPIN lab has taken upon itself to investigate the area of emotional connection with robots, specifically through touch. In 2008, it created The Haptic Creature, a rabbit-like robot that could sense motion and react by purring, modulating its "breathing", and perking up its "ears". Kind of like a more advanced version of the toy Tribble you can buy.

The latest iteration of the Haptic Creature is called the Cuddlebot, a 2012 Master's thesis project by Anna Flagg at UBC. Cuddlebot looks a lot less like a rabbit than its predecessor--literally a ball of fur--but it's actually quite a bit more advanced. Layered on top of its styrofoam body are layers of fabric sensors, including a "smart fur" top layer composed of conductive and resistive threads. That means that Cuddlebot can detect interactions ranging from the gentlest of strokes to scratches and respond accordingly.

Light petting is one thing, but when a robotic patch of fur can react to gentle blowing across its surface, we're moving away from Tribble territory and into Data's simulated skin in Star Trek: First Contact. That's just freaky.

Watch the video of the Cuddlebot responding to pets and strokes below.