Smart Fur

The benefits of touching animals (real or robotic)

Posted Jun 18, 2012

One of the inventions that made the recent New York Times Magazine list of “innovations that will change your tomorrow” is called “smart fur.” Developed by researchers at the University of British Columbia, smart fur looks like nothing more than an odd little scrap of faux fur or maybe a misplaced toupee. Built into the fur, though, is a sensor made of conductive threads. When you touch it, it actually feels like a real animal. What is even more interesting is that the smart fur can “read” human emotion through the way it is touched and researchers say that it can differentiate nine unique emotional gestures. Smart fur is part of the latest trend in “haptic creatures” (haptic refers to our sense of touch; haptic designs incorporate tactile feedback in user interface).

Smart fur isn’t just for fun. The basic idea behind smart fur is that (many) people love to pet animals, and petting animals has been shown to have various therapeutic benefits. For example, stroking an animal has been found to lower blood pressure, reduce stress, and create a feeling of calm. Unfortunately, there are many instances in which pet therapy might be beneficial but where interacting with a real dog or cat might is not feasible. For example, smart fur could be used with hospitalized patients or elderly people in nursing homes. It could also be used by animal lovers with severe allergies. And it could be used by ordinary people like me. I could keep a smart fur in my purse and stroke it when stuck in traffic or in a long grocery store line or other stressful situations. I definitely want a smart fur.

Eventually, the smart fur might be combined with a “robo-pet” to create something even more animal-like. (You can check out an article about Steve Yohanan’s robo-bunny here. It can breathe, move its ears, and will purr if you touch it nicely.)

What is a pet, after all, but something to stroke? The exact origin of the noun “pet” is unknown, but the word came into use in the 16th century, and referred to an indulged or spoiled child or to a tamed animal. The verb “to pet” was first used in the 17th century, and means to stroke or fondle. (The erotic use of the term—as in “heavy petting”—is a modern iteration.) One of my favorite ways of interacting with my dog Maya and my cat Thor is through touch. I love it when Thor curls up on my desk, right in front of (or on top of) my computer keyboard, so I can scratch his head and stroke his fur while I pretend to work.

It may be that the benefits of touch go both ways. Although the reaction of animals to being touched by humans has been much less carefully studied, one researcher did find that dogs undergo many of the same positive

physiological changes as humans, such as increased levels of oxytocin and serotonin. Is this why Thor’s favorite song is Billie Squire’s The Stroke?