Prestigious US research institute MIT has unveiled a prototype robotic glove which enables you to perform with one hand tasks that would normally require both.

Robotic glove adds two extra fingers to the human hand

Four fingers and a thumb have proved to be just fine. Nevertheless, might not an extra two fingers be even better? This at least is the view of a research team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). The team has just unveiled a robotic glove, which adds one finger to each side of the hand. At the present stage of development the fingers are long, rather cumbersome, and certainly not very attractive. However, mounted at wrist level, they let you do with a single hand what you would normally require both hands for. For example, the robot fingers can grip a bottle while your own fingers unscrew the cap or hold a cup of coffee while you use your own fingers to stir the contents. They enable you to pick up heavy and/or larger objects with one hand, or grasp an object that would be too hot or too cold for your real hand.

An extension of the hand     

“You don’t need to command the robot, but simply move your fingers naturally. Then the robotic fingers react and assist your fingers,” explains the glove's creator, Harry Asada of MIT's Department of Mechanical Engineering. The professor insists that controlling the robotic glove will become “intuitive and natural. Every day we use various tools. A knife and fork, and then we drive a car. If you use those tools for a long time, you feel that those tools are just an extension of your body. That's exactly what we'd like to do with robotics,” he underlines. Underlying the robot glove is an algorithm which analyses the hand and finger movements of the glove wearer, and then decides how to position the two mechanical fingers. “For the moment we’re concentrating on the posture, but there’ll be other data to take into account,” explains Faye Wu, an MIT graduate student working with Asada on the project. “With an object that looks small but is heavy, or slippery, the posture would be the same, but the force would be different, so how would it adapt to that? That's the next thing we'll look at,” she revealed.

Helping people with disabilities                    

The glove is still at the prototype stage, but going forward it could “help elderly people or those with disabilities to lead independent lives,” predicts Faye Wu. Moreover, “tools for people with disabilities can also be very useful for able-bodied people as well,” points out Asada, who is well aware that there are still additional potential uses of the robotic glove to explore. Meanwhile Matthew Mason, a robotics expert who is Director of the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University in the United States, points out that “this is breaking new ground on the question of how humans and robots interact.” Such robot-assisted activity is clearly only in its infancy. “We could make this device into a watch or a bracelet where the fingers pop up, and when the job is done, they retract back into the watch,” explains Asada, arguing that “wearable robots are a way to bring the robot closer to our daily life.”

By Jérôme Marin