Real-life robots are still relatively primitive compared to those featured in science fiction, but that hasn’t stopped us from building bots that can take care of most of our physical needs. (Yes, including that.) In Japan, there’s even now a robot that can simulate going on a walk and holding hands with your significant other, even if they’re just a figment of your imagination.
You’d assume that all you’d really need to simulate holding someone’s hand is one of those severed rubber limbs you can find at any party store leading up to Halloween. A couple of mental gymnastics later and you’re walking hand-in-hand on a warm beach with your beloved. But that wasn’t enough for robotics researchers at Japan’s Gifu University. In a recently published paper titled “My Girlfriend in Walk” (translated from its Japanese name, “Osampo Kanojo”) the team details an elaborate wearable rig that goes all-in when it comes to simulating the experience of holding someone’s hand during a walk.
Made from a soft pliable material to recreate the feel of human flesh, the robotic hand part of the system features articulated animated fingers that can detect pressure and squeeze back when gripped tightly, as well as a heating mechanism so it feels more lifelike. It’s also designed to simulate the feeling of moisture, so the hand artificially sweats through a series of pores where small amounts of moisture from a dampened piece of fabric inside seeps out when the hand is heated. It’s supposed to be subtle, so you don’t get that “dead fish” feeling from the hand.
That just recreates the experience of holding another person’s hand, however. For the full “walk in the park” experience, the robotic hand is mounted on a sliding rail that runs perpendicular to the wearer’s arm. Those fortunate enough to have experienced a stroll while embracing someone else’s hand know that it’s a delicate balancing act while you try to match each other’s gait. To simulate times when person might be walking faster or slower than the other, the hand can move back and forth along the sliding rail to create the sensation that it’s pulling you, or you’re pulling it.
If all that wasn’t enough, the My Girlfriend in Walk rig also works alongside an accompanying smartphone app that simulates and plays the sounds of the other person’s footsteps and the rustling of their clothes as they move. Unfortunately, as the name implies, in its current form this isn’t the most inclusive robot. It’s designed to only simulate holding a female’s hand, and the researchers even scented the artificial skin with a floral shampoo fragrance. Good news, Disney Research, Japan has successfully reclaimed the title of creepiest robot.