Embracing machines’ support

Contact: Deanne Puca
Joan Windewani

This isn’t an ordinary stuffed animal; this cat has a mind of its own. Joan Windewani, a psychology major from Indonesia, is playing with one of the zoomorphic cats from the Social Robotics Labs at Western.

KALAMAZOO, Mich.—Advancements in technology may be moving faster than some who could benefit the most from it are comfortable with. Instead of being wary, Dr. Bryan Abendschein, assistant professor of communication, is studying how people interact with technology—specifically soft, furry robotic animals—and the implications for providing emotional support and stimulation.

Abendschein began to study this interaction in late 2019 with his colleagues Drs. Chad and Autumn Edwards in the School of Communication. This group, who are members of the Communication and Social Robotics Labs, joined with the University Libraries to offer access to robotic pets, called zoomorphic robots, to students during finals week. Participants were asked to rate their stress levels before and after spending time with the pets, which resemble the size, shape and feel of a grown cat or kitten. Complete with purrs, meows and “kneading,” the robots contributed to reports of lower stress levels and greater feelings of relaxation from their handlers, according to the research.

These robots were joined with “Purrbles,” extremely soft smaller models of a generic cuddly animal, to mimic a stressed animal, including a racing heartbeat and distressed sounds. As a person hugs and holds the Purrble to calm it, the person focuses less on their own anxiety.

The next level of Abendschein’s research will introduce these robots to patients with brain injuries to study if this interaction can stimulate brain function and activity as well as encourage more exchanges between patients and the people around them.

“The newness (of technology) can be reinvigorating,” he says. “Can this spur interaction between people?

“There are many implications for how we think about and interact with technology,” he adds. “We talk so much about our fear of technology. My real excitement is for all of the good we can get from it: how this can supplement our lives and make them better.” ■