Meet the huggable, semi-robotic (and semi-creepy) pillow phone

Posted at 8:39 PM, May 02, 2012
and last updated 2012-05-02 20:39:26-04

(CNN) — A Japanese roboticist recently showed off a giant, person-shaped pillow that also doubles as a cell phone and vibrates based on the frequency of the voice of the person you’re talking to. If you’re inclined to give this the benefit of the doubt, think of it as a step forward in “haptic” technology, which aims to bring the largely missing sense of touch into the realm of digital communications.

Or, if you’re a skeptic: Just call it creepy.

The “Hugvie” robot reportedly is the work of Japanese roboticist Hiroshi Ishiguro, who, among other things, is known for making a robotic version of himself. He also created a Telenoid robot that stands in for humans and, as IEEE Spectrum described it, looks like “a supersized fetus.”

The aim of Hugvie, as he explains in the above video by DigInfo TV, is to help people who are talking on the phone feel as if they’re actually with the person they’re speaking with:

“The two vibrators produce a throbbing sound like a heartbeat. That pulse can get faster or stronger depending on the volume and tone of the caller’s voice. We’ve used several rules like that to create the pulsing sound. When we give Telenoids to seniors, most people hugged them … when they talked to the other person.”

The semi-robotic pillow creature looks kind of like Casper the ghost and comes in an array of colors. It appears to be available for $50 on a Japanese robot website. In the video, the roboticist describes the Hugvie as a “soft cuddly object shaped like a person.” You put your phone inside a pocket in the pillow-bot, the video says, so that you can make and receive calls to people you know.

Again, assuming we’re taking this development seriously, it falls in an interesting (and/or terrifying) line of devices that aim to connect long-distance communicators via touch, or to enhance media-viewing with haptic feedback. A couple we’ve reported on: The Emotichair aims to augment the movie-going experience by sending vibrations into the viewer’s spine; and there have been various attempts to let people give each other a “virtual hug” while they’re communicating on video chat on the telephone.

If you view all this as just as strange as that other pillow trend to come out of Japan, you could look at it the way the tech site CNET does. The Hugvie, that site writes, is the “perfect accessory for your next cell phone rave/love-in.”

Gizmodo’s Australian website piles on, too:

“This is one of those concepts that has noble intentions — I think — but comes across as just a little weird. Maybe a whole lot weird … I get what they’re trying to get at here, although I can’t help but think that the comment that ‘most people hold it that way’ is a little obvious; the phone’s in the robot/pillow’s head, so there’s really no other comfortable way to hold it except for hugging it.”

Apparently the robot-pillow makers think this could be used by lots of people. From the video: “We think this could be used by families and lovers, as well as by seniors and children.”

By John D. Sutter