Having worked in a haptics lab since she was an undergraduate, Alexis E. Block developed a strong interest in the field. Now the first full-time Human Fusions Institute faculty hire at Case Western Reserve University, it is vital to Block that most of her research has some element of touch. “More recently, I’ve also become interested in the social side of things because I’ve realized how important that element is,” said Block. “I want to use technology to provide emotional support through social and physical connections.”
In May 2023, when Block was finishing her postdoctoral research fellowship at University of California Los Angeles, she heard about the Functional Fashion competition to be held at the 2023 International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems (IROS). Working with research collaborators at UCLA, she created a wearable with different sensing and actuation methods to promote social-physical interactions with humans. The system includes a watch with various biosensors to detect a user's emotional state and a jacket with a social battery display, LEDs, and fur patches on the back of the jacket to intuitively inspire people near the person to provide the wearer with a social touch.
The team working on this project, “Affect Sensing Modular Wearable to Promote Social-Physical Interactions,” includes Block, CWRU sophomore Cole Smith, UCLA sophomore Edward Ng, UCLA Professor Ankur Mehta, and UCLA postdoctoral scholar Richard Lin. “The best part of collaborative research is the creativity borne of a group of clever people with complementary objectives but varied backgrounds,” said Mehta of the team.
Block emphasized that the competition was “an excellent opportunity to demonstrate our efforts to the scientific community” and that this is the first initiative of “an exciting larger project.”
“I'm looking forward to developing a better understanding of physical and nonverbal emotional response and communication fundamentals,” added Mehta.
When Block left UCLA in the summer of 2023 to start as a faculty member at CWRU, the jacket remained in Los Angeles with her collaborators while Block began working on the intelligence side at CWRU. The collaborators were in constant contact and provided updates to the competition committee at IROS. All hardware is now located at CWRU.
In October 2023, Block met up in Detroit with Mehta for the competition at IROS. The reception to the project was very positive. “People liked our idea and thought it was interesting,” said Block of the conference attendees. “Many saw significant value in the topic, especially for people with difficulty expressing their emotions or understanding the emotions’ of others.”
In addition to entering the Functional Fashion Competition, Ng presented the group’s research as part of the Southern California Robotics Symposium at University of California Irvine earlier this summer. Ng told Block that people who attended the poster session said the jacket would be great technology for nonverbal individuals, especially children who can’t express emotions or patients experiencing a lot of pain or stress.
Block plans to use this project as a foundation for one of her early grant proposals to enable her research group to study how humans will interact with and respond to this system. She would like to see more students at CWRU get involved with this project, particularly graduate students.