The February 2023 issue of IEEE Spectrum is here!

Close bar

A Personal-Space Robot to Assist People With Social Anxiety

Do you suffer from social anxiety? This robot has your back, your front, and your sides all covered

2 min read
A Personal Space Robot to Assist People With Social Anxiety
Gifu University's Mobile Personal Space (MPS) is a robotic shell that completely encloses an individual with social anxiety [right]. Once you’re in there, you interact with people outside [left] through cameras and LCD screens.
Image: Gifu University

While I personally never ever not once have I ever suffered from any sort of social anxiety, I recognize that it’s a thing that people can struggle with. And especially for people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), social situations can be very challenging. Part of the difficulty lies in insufficient or excessive agency cues (nonverbal social signals that include gaze, facial expression, and personal distance), and while there’s been a substantial amount of research towards helping people with ASD improve their cognitive skills, researchers in Japan are trying a different approach through a ‘comfortable information environment” called the Mobile Personal Space.

The Mobile Personal Space (MPS) is a physical shell that completely encloses an individual with social anxiety. Once you’re in there, you can’t see anybody, and nobody can see you. If you want to move around, just walk towards one of the walls, and a tracking camera will cause the entire shell to move with you on a set of omni wheels. Interaction with the rest of the world is mediated by cameras and LCD screens—in the final implementation of the MPS, there will be a screen on each side (that is, inside and outside) of each wall, although for this prototype they could only afford to put a single screen on the inside of one wall with an accompanying camera feeding in a view of what’s outside.\

Robotic shell for people with social anxietyThe current prototype uses omnidirectional wheels to allow the shell to move and rotate, following the user around.Image: Gifu University

These screens and cameras are about more than just physical separation. Using facial recognition, software translates the camera feed of a real person into an animated avatar, mapping facial expressions and movements onto the character. This appearance modulation is designed to reduce social anxiety in what would otherwise be a face-to-face situation. 

The researchers were able to conduct a “preliminary psychological experiment” with their prototype MPS system, but the results were “not good,” author Kazunori Terada told us at an IROS poster session. Feelings of being confined, fear of the other person, and sadness when a conversation wasn’t going well all increased significantly, reported test users. However, the number of utterances during an interaction almost doubled, suggesting that something about the MPS actually might improve communications in some way.

The researchers would like to continue working on their prototype, but they readily acknowledge all of the things that you’re probably thinking: Among them, that this system can’t go up stairs, fit through doors, or really be moved around at all. And using something like this in a realistic social situation would be, uh, weird. For everyone, probably.

“Mobile Personal Space: A Personal Space Robot to Assist People with Social Anxiety,” by Kazunori Terada and Tomohito Hara from Gifu University in Japan, was presented last week at IROS 2017 in Vancouver, Canada.

The Conversation (0)

The Bionic-Hand Arms Race

The prosthetics industry is too focused on high-tech limbs that are complicated, costly, and often impractical

12 min read
A photograph of a young woman with brown eyes and neck length hair dyed rose gold sits at a white table. In one hand she holds a carbon fiber robotic arm and hand. Her other arm ends near her elbow. Her short sleeve shirt has a pattern on it of illustrated hands.

The author, Britt Young, holding her Ottobock bebionic bionic arm.

Gabriela Hasbun. Makeup: Maria Nguyen for MAC cosmetics; Hair: Joan Laqui for Living Proof

In Jules Verne’s 1865 novel From the Earth to the Moon, members of the fictitious Baltimore Gun Club, all disabled Civil War veterans, restlessly search for a new enemy to conquer. They had spent the war innovating new, deadlier weaponry. By the war’s end, with “not quite one arm between four persons, and exactly two legs between six,” these self-taught amputee-weaponsmiths decide to repurpose their skills toward a new projectile: a rocket ship.

The story of the Baltimore Gun Club propelling themselves to the moon is about the extraordinary masculine power of the veteran, who doesn’t simply “overcome” his disability; he derives power and ambition from it. Their “crutches, wooden legs, artificial arms, steel hooks, caoutchouc [rubber] jaws, silver craniums [and] platinum noses” don’t play leading roles in their personalities—they are merely tools on their bodies. These piecemeal men are unlikely crusaders of invention with an even more unlikely mission. And yet who better to design the next great leap in technology than men remade by technology themselves?

Keep Reading ↓Show less