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Future 'Smart' Objects Could Chat While They Help

THURSDAY, May 2 (HealthDay News) -- Talking tissue boxes and refrigerators may be among the types of "smart" objects that people use in the future, researchers report.

"Smart objects will become more and more a part of our daily lives," S. Shyam Sundar, a professor of communications and co-director of the Media Effects Research Laboratory at Pennsylvania State University, said in a school news release. "We believe the next phase is that objects will start talking and interacting with humans, and our goal is to figure out the best ways for objects to communicate with humans."

As computers and sensors become increasingly smaller and less expensive, smart objects that interact with people will become more common in homes and offices, the researchers said. For instance, smart fridges could talk or send tweets when certain food items are running low or are nearing their expiration dates.

In order to assess how people react to smart objects that talk, the research team observed people when they encountered a tissue box that said, "Bless you," when a person sneezed and followed that up by saying, "Here, take a tissue," and, "Take care."

The tissue box didn't actually speak. The statements were pre-recorded and broadcast to the tissue box by a researcher.

Study participants seemed to have a positive reaction to the talking tissue box, which suggests that people would be accepting of such smart objects, the researchers said.

The findings may also help manufacturers design smart objects. The researchers noted that robots often are made to look human, but many people find such robots creepy.

"This study shows that speech is a social cue," Sundar said. "It may be enough to make the objects more social and not necessarily more human-like in appearance."

The study was presented Wednesday at the annual Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems in Paris. Data and conclusions presented at meetings should be considered preliminary until published in a peer-reviewed journal.

More information

Visit the U.S. National Science Foundation to learn about robotics and health.

-- Robert Preidt

SOURCE: Penn State, news release, May 1, 2013

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