In the olden days, people wrote letters to communicate. Then came the telephone, and then the internet. But within the last decade, new modes of long distance communication have exploded, from Skype and Google Hangouts to the rise of VR. But what if technology could give you a stronger sense of presence—not a notification, but the real feeling that someone is physically there with you? For couples in long-distance relationships, this kind of tech could be the ultimate romance machine.
Statistics published in the Journal of Communication claim that 3 million married couples in the U.S. live apart, that 25-50% of college students are in a long-distance relationship of some kind, and that up to 75% of college students have been in one at some point. The conventional wisdom that long-distance relationships are worse off than more traditional ones isn't necessarily true, either. One 2013 study from the Journal of Communication showed that partners in long-distance relationships are just as satisfied—if not more so—than their counterparts who live in the same place, which may be due to the rise of technology that keeps us connected. With more and more young people choosing career and education over relationships, the market for tools to help them stay in touch across distance is only going to grow.
The Connections Lab, part of the School of Interactive Arts and Technology at Simon Frasier University in British Columbia, Canada, is focused on researching and developing technology that connects us, focusing on domestic life and even relationships. The lab was created in 2010 by Associate Professor Carman Neustaedter, who says that he found it personally challenging to stay connected with friends and family who lived far away. Neustaedter wanted to develop technologies that would help people share their lives with those they care about—regardless of where they are in the world.
"People are increasingly living far away from their loved ones because it is easy to travel and connect with them using technology. But the technology is still primitive in my view," he says. "We want to make it so people can feel much more like they are actually with someone in person and part of that involves being able to do activities together that go beyond just talking. It’s about going for a hike with someone, jogging together, sharing a meal, embracing with a hug, and much, much more."
That technology might look like a Wi-Fi-connected, vibrotactile glove that lets you feel like you're holding hands, or it might look like a telepresence robot that you can sit down to a meal with. But the ultimate goal is to give long-distance couples ways of connecting beyond their screens.
Touch—whether it's holding hands, cuddling, or something more scandalous—is indisputably important in a relationship, and it's something the Connections Lab is working on bringing to long distance love.
The lab's Flex-N-Feel gloves, developed last year by the master's student Samarth Singhal, use sensors and vibrations to simulate touch. Each set of gloves has two components: The "Flex" glove is equipped with sensors that measure the bend of the fingers, and the "Feel" glove has small vibrating motors. When connected to Wi-Fi, the partner with the Flex glove can use their fingers to control the strength of the vibrations on the Feel glove. The vibrations progress linearly down the glove, imitating the feeling of a finger tracing down the skin. Designed to be mobile, and subtle enough that they could be used in public, they'd be an intimate way to give your partner a little high-tech love.
Singhal ran a lab-based study of the prototype with nine couples, simulating a long-distance relationship by stationing them in separate rooms but giving them access to audio and video communication. While the gloves don't have the power to move the partner's hand or arm entirely, the Flex glove wearer can control the amount of vibration based on the location of the Feel glove wearer's hand. Using video chat to coordinate their movements, the couples used the gloves to establish a physical presence (like tapping the other's nose), share actions (like high-five, pinky swear, or handholding), and touch more intimately (massage and tickling). Who knows what they would have gotten up to if it hadn't been for Singhal and his colleagues watching their interactions.
The gloves are still in prototype mode, and Singhal plans to incorporate some of the feedback from the lab-based study in his next iteration. The couples asked for softer, more sensual vibration and requested more kinds of interactions. From there, he's hoping to bring the gloves closer to production and maybe even launch on Kickstarter.
Beyond physical touch, long distance couples miss something often called "presence"—the feeling of being physically close to someone that comes when you hang out or share a meal.
That's what telepresence robots are already doing in many office environments for remote workers. These 'bots are basically just mechanical bodies on wheels, with a video communications-enabled tablet for a head. The Connections Lab researcher Lillian Yang wanted to find out what impact this kind of robot would have on long-distance couples (including Singhal and his girlfriend).
Controlled by the person shown on the video screen, the robot is like a surrogate for a partner's physical presence. By adding an element of physical feedback to the digital interactions between separated partners, the couples were able to communicate in more subtle ways. Even if the robot's body wasn't their own, they could still express body language with it: if they were having a disagreement, the user could have their robot leave the room, and return when their partner was ready to talk. But the robot didn't only help with communication; it also increased the elusive element of presence. Rather than one partner having to accept an incoming call from the other, the caller could just turn on their robot at any time—potentially surprising the other person in the relationship and bolstering that sense of togetherness.
According to a story from the university, the lab has continued to research the effect that these telepresence robots can have on relationships by embedding them into several Vancouver homes—and one long-distance couple is planning a date for Valentine's Day.
How many love songs have been written about eyes? Probably too many. Short of actually gazing into each other's eyes in person, the technology couples are bound to could also give them a chance to experience each others' lives from afar.
That's what Singhal is trying to do with Be With Me, a mobile-based video communication system that gives you a bigger window into your partner's world. One person attaches a 360-degree camera to their smartphone, while the other can see the view on their mobile device (the tech only goes one way, with one viewer and one broadcaster). Singhal has created two interfaces for the under-development system so far: One that allows you to use your phone's touch screen to look around your partner's room, and another that uses the phone's gyroscopic capabilities so that you can simply rotate your phone in order to see more of their environment. He hopes to eventually make it compatible with a mobile VR headset like Google Cardboard. Singhal imagines one partner taking the other along on a hike or bringing them shopping. That way, you could go along for the ride as your partner tries on shoes or reaches the peak.
Ultimately, these technologies won't just help long-distance couples. Singhal thinks his Flex-N-Feel gloves could be used, for instance, by a mother who wants to hold her son's hand across distances. "I think a touch is valued in every relationship," he says.
For long-distance couples, including Singhal and his girlfriend, this tech could enable a new kind of digitally-enhanced relationship. Perhaps by February 14, 2020, they'll be able to curl up by the fire with 360-degree VR, some Flex-N-Feel gloves, and a box of heart-shaped chocolates—because some things never change.
[Photos: Samarth Singhal]