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SYFY WIRE robots

Tired of brushing your own hair? Now you can get a robot to do it for you

By Adam Pockross

Have you ever been stuck in the tangled doldrums of hair brushing and just found yourself thinking: “Boy, I could really use some help with this”?

Well, now the smarties at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) and the Soft Math Lab at Harvard University have put their heads together to bring you “RoboWig,” a robot who can gently but effectively brush your hair. Just imagine all the multitasking opportunities!

To be fair, there is a valid reason to attempt such a heady robotic task, as a personal care ‘bot with RoboWig's brushing skills could be very useful to someone who has a hard time performing physical tasks, for instance eldery or disabled people. According to an MIT CSAIL article, nurses spend somewhere between 18 to 40 percent of their time on “direct patient care tasks,” such as hair brushing. So you can see where such a ‘bot could come in handy.  

Obviously, creating a skilled brusher ‘bot is no small task, considering you have to have a robot that can gauge force so as to comb through tangles, but not painfully pull out all your hair. To accomplish as much, scientists equipped a robotic arm with a sensorized soft brush and a camera, which basically allows it to “see” curls and assess the most delicate and time-efficient way to brush them out.  

Check out RoboWig in action as it brushes through increasingly more curly wigs in the MIT CSAIL video below:  

In order to apply the proper amount of force, RoboWig uses the sensorized hair brush in conjunction with computer vision. The feedback collected from the sensors allows the barber ‘bot to adjust the force with which it brushes, by adapting to the “degree of tangling in the fiber bunch.”

As you’d guess, it all boils down to math really. The data presents the tangled bunches as sets of entwined double helices, akin to DNA strands. Such granularity allows the team to create mathematical models and control systems used to manipulate soft fibers bundles.

“By developing a model of tangled fibers, we understand from a model-based perspective how hairs must be entangled: starting from the bottom and slowly working the way up to prevent 'jamming' of the fibers,” CSAIL postdoc Josie Hughes, lead author on a recent paper about RoboWig, said in the article. “This is something everyone who has brushed hair has learned from experience, but is now something we can demonstrate through a model, and use to inform a robot.”  

Aside from the obvious patient care tasks, the technology could also foreseeably be applied in textiles, animal care, or other “fibrous systems,” according to the article. Or it could also just come in handy if you’ve just got really curly hair (and are perhaps lazy).

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