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Video chat doesn’t allow us to touch our loved ones over distance.

When family and friends connect over distance, they commonly use technologies like text messaging, phone calls, or video chat (e.g., Skype, FaceTime, Zoom). This allows family members and friends to talk to one another. They might even try to mimic more intimate acts like blowing a kiss over FaceTime or making a hug gesture in front of their iPad or phone. But this is obviously quite different than actually touching, kissing, or hugging a loved one who lives far away. …


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Attending a conference remotely through a telepresence robot.

Telepresence robots are much like “Skype-on-wheels.” They consist of a display that runs a video conferencing system which is attached to a type of robotic body. This body can be driven around remotely from any location, provided there is an Internet connection. A variety of telepresence robots have been created, including Beams from Suitable Technologies and Doubles from Double Robotics. You may have even seen them on television shows like Modern Family or the Big Bang Theory. Telepresence robots have been studied and used in many different fields and environments, including education, health care, tech companies, etc. …


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At some point, physical distancing measures will begin to lift and people will be more comfortable heading into the outdoors to pursue outdoor activities that they enjoy like hiking, bicycling, jogging, etc. Many people are already doing such activities to stay healthy, while following appropriate physical distancing measures. Yet the reality is that not everyone is able to easily get into the outdoors and do physical activities. Some people may still face strong risks related to COVID-19 due to chronic health situations, weak immune systems, etc. Other people may face health or mobility issues that make it tough or even impossible to pursue outdoor activities. …


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Working from home can easily make one feel lonely. This is partly because we miss out on informal and casual interactions with others.

Many people are now working from home due to social or physical distancing measures. This means that they go about their own work and occasionally (or frequently!) connect with others during meetings over video chat systems like Skype, Zoom, Blue Jeans, etc. This is beneficial, yet just meeting with others during planned meetings means missing out on the casual interactions or informal conversations that are at the heart of strong workplace cultures.

Early in my research career, I studied telecommuting and technology design for people who worked from home and used video conferencing to stay in touch with their colleagues. This work was done with the amazing Saul Greenberg, my graduate supervisor at the time. …


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Grandparents and grandchildren often share a very important emotional bond and both groups can benefit from a strong relationship. When grandparents and grandchildren live far apart, it can be difficult for them to stay connected and technology needs to help fill the gap and bridge the distance divide. At present time, separation can easily be a result of social distancing measures that are vitally important for the health and safety of both grandparents and grandchildren during a pandemic.

So how can grandparents stay connected with their grandchildren if they aren’t able to see them regularly in person?

We have studied this topic extensively in my research group and it was the focus of Azadeh Forghani’s PhD dissertation. Across the years, we have conducted several studies of grandparent and grandchild communication over distance, including studies of their existing communication routines and the design and use of futuristic communication technologies. Our emphasis is typically on young grandchildren between the ages of 4 and 10. Here are some things that we have learned. …


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Photo in a couple’s home with a video link capturing everyday activities in the kitchen.

Many people find themselves in a long distance relationship at some point in their life. They might move away from their partner for school or work, or they may have met when living in different cities. It turns out that long distance couples are often really good at using technology — if they want to stay together, they almost have to be. At a time when social distancing is really important, there is a lot we can learn from long distance couples that might help many other people and different types of relationships.

My research group and collaborators have studied long distance couples a lot with an emphasis on understanding how to design new technologies to support their relationships over distance. This article focuses on a study that Saul Greenberg and I ran exploring how long distance couples use Skype and other technologies to stay connected. In this work, we studied couples who were apart across a range of different distances, both large and small. Some were only a drive apart between two relatively close cities. Some spanned massive time differences of up to 18 hours. …


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Social distancing means that it can be challenging for people to see family and friends. This could be grandparents who live far away, kids and their playmates, adult siblings, cousins, etc. When people are separated by distance, they often turn to video chat technologies like Skype because they like to talk to each other and see each. Seeing involves visually understanding that a person is ‘okay’. It also involves understanding facial expressions and body language that accompanies one’s voice.

In 2010, Tejinder Judge and I studied how family members use video chat technologies like Skype and FaceTime to learn what works well for people such that they can create strong feelings of connection over distance. We also learned what challenges exist and what workarounds people use. Much of what we found in this study still holds true today, and it can be seen across many family and friend relationships. …


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The SFU President’s Gala at SFU Surrey (Surrey, BC, Canada) — February 2020

People participate in a lot of really important events in their lifetime. Many stick out for their ‘specialness’ — we call these major life events. They are the birthday celebrations, weddings, graduations, and more that we value and want to be a part of. As our present world looks to social distancing, it is highly likely that many of the major life events we value will either be cancelled or people won’t be able to participate in them because they will be unable to travel or self-isolating.

In 2014, Mike Massimi and I conducted a study of major life events to understand how people were beginning to engage in them in an online way through video chat. We began to see that people were starting to use systems like Skype to bring others into a major life event remotely, such that the remote family member or friend was still able to participate. For example, a search on YouTube for “Skype Weddings” reveals many cases where people have used a video chat system to be “present” at a remote wedding. One poll by USA Today found that over half of brides consider providing a Skype connection for remote guests to attend their weddings. One could find similar results for other major events like childbirths or graduations. What makes these events particularly salient for video chat systems like Skype is a growing technology-enabled desire, and perhaps even obligation, to “witness” and participate in major life events despite physical distance. …


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Dr. Carman Neustaedter (photo while on sabbatical in Cambridge, UK)

I am a professor at Simon Fraser University in the School of Interactive Arts & Technology. I have studied how people connect with each other, interact, stay aware, and do joint activities over distance for two decades now. As a society, we are currently facing an unparalleled need to be apart via social distancing, yet we still need to be together, virtually.

My research group and I, along with our collaborators, have studied how many different types of people and relationships connect across distance ranging from workplace colleagues to long distance partners to grandparents and grandkids to friends and other family. This work is found in a whole host of our publications, however, the knowledge is mostly written for other academics, scientists, social scientists, designers, and industrial researchers. …

About

Dr. Carman Neustaedter

Professor in the School of Interactive Arts & Technology (SIAT) at Simon Fraser University (SFU). Expert in HCI and connecting over distance http://carmster.com

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