MIT’s RoboWig can help people with disabilities untangle their hair

Most of us often take certain activities of daily living for granted, such as being able to detangle and brush our hair. But for people with disabilities or reduced mobility, the simple act of brushing their hair often requires someone else’s help. Personal care robots that brush hair could provide substantial help and relief.

Scientists from MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) and the Soft Math Lab at Harvard University have developed a robotic arm setup with a sensorized soft brush that can help untangle and brush hair. The robot, called RoboWig, is equipped with a camera that helps it “see” and assess curliness, so it can plan a delicate and time-efficient brush-out.

Scientists put “RoboWig” to the test by brushing wigs ranging from straight to very curly hair. The team notes that every head of hair is different, and the intricate interplay between hairs when combing can easily lead to knots. If the incorrect brushing strategy is used, the process can be very painful and damaging to the hair.

To brush and manipulate the hair, the researchers added a soft-bristled sensorized brush to the robot arm of the RoboWig. The sensors measure forces during brushing and are combined with what is known as a closed-loop control system, which takes feedback from the output and automatically performs an action without human intervention. This created “force feedback” from the brush so the length of the stroke could be optimized to take into account both the potential pain and time taken to brush.

Although all the tests have so far been conducted with wigs of various hairstyles and types, the team hopes to one day be able to conduct experiments on humans. One of the goals of future human experiments would be to better understand the performance of the robot with respect to their experience of pain. The problem is that the pain tolerance varies from person to person.

To allow robots to extend their task-solving abilities to more complex tasks such as hair brushing, we need not only novel, safe hardware, but also an understanding of the complex behavior of the soft hair and tangled fibers,” says CSAIL postdoc Josie Hughes. “In addition to hair brushing, the insights provided by our approach could be applied to brushing of fibers for textiles, or animal fibers.

The application of the robot is not very clear. However, if this equipment is cheaper and more reasonable than hiring a nurse or a maid, the chances of going to the market are quite high.

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