Microsoft Future Leaders in Robotics and AI Seminar Series: Alexis Block

Friday, March 3, 2023
2:00 p.m.
Online Seminar

HuggieBot: Design & Evaluation of an Interactive Hugging Robot with Visual & Haptic Perception

Zoom Link

Alexis Block
Postdoctoral Fellow
University of California, LA


Hugs are one of the first forms of contact and affection humans experience. Receiving a hug is one of the best ways to feel socially supported, and the lack of social touch can have severe adverse effects on an individual's well-being. Due to the prevalence and health benefits of hugging, we were interested in creating robots that can hug humans as seamlessly as humans hug other humans. However, hugs are complex affective interactions that need to adapt to the height, body shape, and preferences of the hugging partner, and they often include intra-hug gestures like squeezes. In this talk, I’ll present the eleven design guidelines of natural and enjoyable robotic hugging that informed the creation of a series of hugging robots that use visual and haptic perception to provide enjoyable interactive hugs. Then, I’ll share how each of the four presented HuggieBot versions is evaluated by measuring how users emotionally and behaviorally respond to hugging it.


Alexis E. Block is currently a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), where she is funded by a competitive postdoctoral Computing Innovation Fellowship (CI Fellows) from the US National Science Foundation. She received her Bachelor’s in Mechanical Engineering and Applied Science from the University of Pennsylvania in 2016, and her Master’s in Robotics in 2017, also from Penn. Block received her Dr. Sc. in Computer Science from ETH Zürich in August 2021, as part of the Max Planck ETH Center for Learning Systems, supervised by Katherine Kuchenbecker, Otmar Hilliges, and Roger Gassert. She was awarded an Otto Hahn Medal from the Max Planck Society for her doctoral work and the Best Hands-On Demonstration at EuroHaptics 2022. Block is currently the General Chair for the Robotics Gordon Research Seminar 2024 and organized the 2022 Southern California Robotics Symposium that took place in September. Alexis’s research has been featured in the New York Times, The Times, IEEE Spectrum (twice), NPR, and Nature Outlook to name a few.

About the Seminar Series

The Future Leaders in Robotics and AI: Celebrating Diversity and Innovation Seminar Series is part of the University of Maryland and Microsoft Robotics and Diversity Initiative. This is a nationwide online seminar series for PhD students, postdoctoral researchers, or early-career professionals, especially underrepresented minorities and women. The seminar series highlights the latest research and innovation in the field of robotics and AI. The series is intended to provide exposure and mentorship opportunities to the speakers, build a network of innovators across the country, and support the speakers’ career planning.

The seminars are held once per month during the academic year. There are two speakers per seminar. Each speaker gives a 20-minute research presentation followed by a Q&A segment. Immediately after the second seminar, the speakers participate in a discussion with faculty.

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