Scientists have developed a robot that can express “emotions” through changes in its outer surface.

The robot’s skin covers a grid of texture units whose shapes change based on the robot’s feelings.

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, said Guy Hoffman, an assistant professor at Cornell University in the US.

“I’ve always felt that robots shouldn’t just be modelled after humans or be copies of humans,” he said.

The robot features an array of two shapes, goosebumps and spikes, which map to different emotional states. The actuation units for both shapes are integrated into texture modules, with fluidic chambers connecting bumps of the same kind.

The team tried two different actuation control systems, with minimising size and noise level a driving factor in both designs.

“One of the challenges is that a lot of shape-changing technologies are quite loud, due to the pumps involved, and these make them also quite bulk,” Hoffman said.

At this point, the robot does not have a specific application. Just proving that this can be done is a sizable first step, according to Hoffman.

“It’s really just giving us another way to think about how robots could be designed,” he said.

Future challenges include scaling the technology to fit into a self-contained robot – whatever shape that robot takes – and making the technology more responsive to the robot’s immediate emotional changes.

Integrating texture-changing skin, combining both feel and visual modalities, can significantly enhance the expressive spectrum of robots for social interaction.PTI

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