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Computer science prof. Karon MacLean and PhD student Steve Yohanan - photo by Martin Dee
Computer science prof. Karon MacLean and PhD student Steve Yohanan - photo by Martin Dee

UBC Reports | Vol. 51 | No. 10 | Oct. 6, 2005

The Purr-fect Touch

Robotic “cat” helps us understand that “warm, fuzzy” feeling

By Brian Lin

Steve Yohanan never cared much for cats. That is, until his girlfriend’s cat laid a paw on him.

“One day soon after we moved in together, I found myself home alone with her cat for the first time. It hopped onto the couch next to me, tentatively put one paw on my leg then started purring, and I just went ‘aww…’ I’ve loved cats ever since,” says Yohanan, a PhD student in the Dept. of Computer Science.

The experience ultimately inspired Yohanan to design the Hapticat -- a soft, pillow-shaped robot with a number of behaviours suggestive of a cat -- to find out what it is about cats and other animals that gives people that warm, fuzzy feeling.

“The Hapticat is a tool to help us bring out the essence of tactile communication and learn what makes us tick,” says Tim Oxenford, an undergraduate engineering physics student who is helping improve the mechanics of the Hapticat, future versions of which will include an automated response mechanism and sensors to interpret user interactions. The data collected through the Hapticat will help computer scientists find new ways for humans and robots to interact.

While vital to the human experience, haptics, or the sense of touch, remains largely unexplored in terms of its potential as a communication medium in human-computer interaction (HCI), says Karon MacLean, a UBC computer science professor and Yohanan’s supervisor in the field of emotional communication.

“This is an area of research that looks at both the psychology and robotics of HCI,” says MacLean, who began haptics research in the early 1990s, before the discipline was even called ‘haptics.’

“Anyone who’s been in an intimate relationship is familiar with the abundance of information that can be conveyed in a simple pat on the back or a squeeze of the hand,” says MacLean, whose research has been supported by industry giants such as Nokia and Nissan.

“What we’re trying to do is decode that information and apply it back into the world so that technology can help us restore some of the connectedness we seem to have already lost to it.”

“There’s a wealth of tactile information afforded to us in interpersonal communication but much of that is lost when communicating through technology like cell phones and computers,” says Oxenford.

By recreating tactile behaviours such as purring, breathing and body heat, and by isolating them from other visual and audio cues, Yohanan was able to observe how study participants reacted to this unique form of communication.

Preliminary results confirm that emotions can indeed be conveyed by touch using the Hapticat and that the subtleties aren’t lost when visual or auditory messages are missing, says Yohanan.

“The only resemblance the Hapticat has to a real cat are the perky ears and a non-working tail,” explains Yohanan. “Even those features are pretty abstract, so we can incorporate other animal or even human behaviours in the future.

“Despite that, people were able to identify fairly accurately which behaviours corresponds with which emotional state, such as purring pointing to a state of contentment or rapid breathing linked with being upset.”

While knowledge derived from the Hapticat project could be applied to the development of surrogate pets for people who may not have access to real pets due to medical or environmental concerns, Yohanan, who has since discovered he is allergic to cats, says the Hapticat is not meant to be a replacement for house pets, but to help understand how humans communicate emotion through touch.

“Technology has done a lot to bring people closer together; however, in many ways it has also isolated us. I’d feel I’ve succeeded if, eventually, my research contributes to something that people can derive comfort from, where it’s otherwise impossible,” says Yohanan.

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Last reviewed 22-Sep-2006

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