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. As a result, many people still yearn to do more than simply see and talk to their loved ones with technology.
Given this challenge, my research group has explored different types of futuristic technology designs to try and re-create the sense of touch — or at least an approximation of it — for loved ones over distance. These technologies are research prototypes which means they are fully working systems such that people can try them out as part of studies where we explore their usage. Yet they are not robust systems in the sense that they could be commercially sold or deployed yet — they’d be too prone to bugs and crashing.
The first system is called Flex-N-Feel and was created by my graduate student, Samarth Singhal, along with myself and our collaborators. Flex-N-Feel includes two types of gloves: the Flex glove and the Feel glove. When a user bends their fingers in the Flex glove, these movements are detected and sent to the Feel glove over the Internet. The Feel glove then vibrates in the same areas of the fingers where the Flex user bent their fingers. Two distance-separated family members can wear the gloves and when one bends their fingers, the other can feel the movement through vibration on their own hand. You can watch a video of how Flex-N-Feel works here. The design can work between two people regardless of where they are, providing that they have an Internet connection.
We imagined that Flex-N-Feel could let family members or close friends share a sense of touch over distance during a video call. For example, while talking, the Feel glove could be placed on one’s hand or arm to simulate a hand-hold or touch. The wearer could also place their hand on their neck for a nice light massage. One might also imagine acts that are even more intimate in nature. The design was created to be open-ended so people can decide how they want to use the gloves and they can be creative in doing so.
We ran a research study where couples used the gloves in our research lab’s home space. We placed each partner in a different room and they tried out Flex-N-Feel while having a call on Skype. Couples highly valued the way that Flex-N-Feel could augment a video call with more information beyond just seeing and hearing each other. They used Flex-N-Feel for a variety of different things such as playing simple games like rock-paper-scissors, giving a massage, tickling, and simply touching one’s body to feel a sense of presence from the remote partner. Here are some quotes from our study participants:
“With gloves it’s like a step forward towards your relationship. Like, phone call’s good enough, but then they’d be like, ‘Oh, hey don’t be sad.’ Your voice can only do that much. But with the gloves if I say, ‘It’s okay. Don’t be sad and stuff.’ She’ll actually feel it and be more responsive.”
“I asked her to put the glove on her belly, and then I just bent my fingers and hear her really laugh, because it’s really like tickling her. It was really good. We can call this flexing glove a tickling glove [laughs]”
“It was fun to figure out the pattern my partner was making.”
Of course, Flex-N-Feel is by no means perfect. Right now, it is asymmetric — only one partner can share their hand and finger movements with the other. We chose to make it this way so we could first test out the idea of sending touch over distance in this manner. You could imagine that future versions of the design would certainly be reciprocal so each partner can send and receive information. We also recognize that Flex-N-Feel does, of course, not actually send real touches over distance. But it starts to head down that direction and, as research, allows us to think about what future possibilities might be out there for allowing family and close friends to connect over distance in new ways.
The second system is called MyEyes, which was created by my graduate student, Rui Pan, along with myself and collaborators. MyEyes is a video conferencing system that uses a virtual reality (VR) head-mounted display (HMD). You put on the HMD and run special video conferencing software. When you call a remote family member or friend, instead of seeing their face, you actually look out into the world as though you were in their body and looking through their eyes. They similarly see your view into the world. So, when looking out, you would see your partner’s arms, legs, and body. Similarly, they would see your arms, legs, and body. Sometimes this can be difficult to imagine; to help, you can watch a video of how MyEyes works here.
We created three different ways of viewing the two camera views — one’s own camera and the remote camera view. The first is split view and puts each camera view side by side (your’s on the left, your partner’s on the right). The second is horizontal view and puts each camera view on top of each other (your’s on top, your partner’s on the bottom). The third view is overlapped view and overlays each camera view on top of each other with your partner’s being semi-translucent.
We imagined that long distance partners could use MyEyes to feel close and intimate, and create stronger feelings of empathy by being virtually-in their partner’s body. They could also use the overlapped view to virtually touch their partner’s hand or body because you’d be able to see both your hand and your partner’s hand in the same space (see the rightmost image above).
We ran a research study where couples could use MyEyes in our research lab’s home space. We had each partner in different rooms where they put on a VR HMD and called each other using MyEyes. Nearly all participants said they enjoyed the design and felt connected to their partner when using MyEyes. Descriptions like “cool idea”, “novel experience” and “like the interactivity” were said about the system. Being able to see what one’s partner was seeing was acknowledged by participants as an intriguing design characteristic. Many felt it was highly intimate.
“I found the idea of ‘seeing through partner’s eyes’ was quite interesting.”
“It was a different experience compare to Skype. You can see them in a more personal way.”
“I think the best case is, I can see his surroundings but I can also merge only my hand movement or gestures in the surroundings to mix with his. Sometimes I don’t need to see my side.”
Participants also commented that the design idea was quite new and so it was a bit hard to get used it. Sometimes it could be considered privacy intrusive. Thus, the system should be used mostly by people who already share a close, intimate relationship.
Of course, there are lots of different ways of thinking about supporting touch over distance with our loved ones. We are also certainly not the only researchers doing work in this space. For example, Floyd Mueller and his collaborators have designed an air-inflatable vest to support a ‘hug over distance’. Daniel Gooch and Leon Watts have designed hand molds and mitts that share hand warmth over distance. And, there are many more types of designs being created by researchers in the field of human-computer interaction.
The research designs I have presented are prototypes with the intention of exploring what a future world that contains touch over distance might be like. Typically it takes 10–20 years until we start to see companies design and sell things that offer functionalities that are similar to what researchers create as prototypes. This means that the future world we have explored in our research is still a long ways off from reality. In turn, this gives us the opportunity to continue to test and try out ideas so we can be sure that the future world we will inhabit is a good one.
Some of our papers on the topic:
Singhal, S., Neustaedter, C., Ooi, Y. L., Antle, A. & Matkin, B. (2017) Flex-N-Feel: The Design and Evaluation of Emotive Gloves for Couples to Support Touch Over Distance Proceedings of the Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work and Social Computing. [PDF]
Pan, R., Singhal, S., Riecke, B., Cramer, E. & Neustaedter, C. (2017) MyEyes: The Design and Evaluation of First Person View Video Streaming for Long-Distance Couples Proceedings of the Conference on Designing Interactive Systems.[PDF]
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 physical 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. Yet I think much of the knowledge is relevant right now for everyday people as the world looks to overcome the COVID-19 pandemic.
I’m going to distill a number of our papers into a way that is likely much more useful to the general public, focusing on the challenges that remote communication creates for people and how they can overcome the issues to stay connected over distance. You’ll find these as blog posts over the coming days and weeks. My goal is to help people, to help people stay connected to those they work with and those they care about. I’m not looking for more citations, accolades, or credit — the goal is to help others with knowledge.