Recently SmartPlanet posted on the development of research that could lead to so-called robot-human love. Now comes another step toward more lovable (or at least soft) robots. A new type of sensor might enable us to poke a robot as if it had the squishy belly button of the Pillsbury Dough boy.
A key function of any robot is to sense its environment. But to sense a variable environment through touch requires something other than a hard, inflexible surface. It would be better to have a soft squishy substance that can detect pressure. Well Touchence, a company born from research at Tokyo University, has developed what they call the world's first soft touch sensor that responds to pressure.
The Shokkaku Cube (or its prior version, ShokacCube) has the consistency and feel of dense foam.
In the following video the company presents the use of three soft sensors in the base of a robot foot, enabling it to get better traction on uneven ground. (The U.S. army's Big Dog might benefit from this sort of innovation.) Of course having better flexibility with hand grips will be equally useful. Currently the sensor is capable of detecting when it is pinched, pushed or rubbed. (No tickling yet!)
From the video: “When a robot touches a human, most people aren’t going to enjoy a hard, metallic touch. So in the future, robots are likely to have soft coverings. But even with a soft exterior, if there’s something hard underneath it, that will feel strange. So it’s necessary to put soft sensors underneath soft coverings. One application for this is detecting touch with a soft covering, so that when a robot actually touches you, it doesn’t feel like there’s a sensor underneath.”
It seems odd (or creepy) to hear about robots touching humans as opposed to us touching robots. But given the emergence of therapeutic robots (like cute yellow Keepon, or the robotic baby seal, Paro) maybe this all makes sense.
Interestingly the sensor is based on optics: “Light comes in from the bottom, and the light receivers on top detect its intensity. There are five light receivers, so five signals are produced. The amount of light reaching each receiver during contact is output as data. Finally, the data is used to calculate pressure, showing which part has been touched.”
Shokkaku is expected to reach the market this September.