In 1999, dial-up tones, busy signals, and duels between landline phones and Internet access were the norm. That's the year Galit Breen first met her husband, Jason.
Jason was finishing school in Wisconsin and she was in her first year of teaching, while finishing up grad school in California. Two-thousand miles separated them when an unexpected spark kindled in a twenties-something chat room on Excite.com. The chance encounter led to a three-year, long-distance relationship before the two married in June of 2002. "We talked every day… first by AOL messenger and then by phone. We didn't even have cell phones, so our phone bills were insane," Breen told me.
If Galit and Jason Breen met now, they would have significantly more options for staying in touch, from Facetime and Skype to Snapchat. But though technology has continued to advance and make it easier for long-distance relationships to thrive, there are some parts of the story that haven't changed: physical intimacy.
Now, some researchers at Carman Neustaedter's Simon Fraser University lab hope to bridge this lover's gap with a virtual-reality technology called "Flex-N-Feel." These interconnected, robotic gloves simulate touch and allow couples to "feel" each other even when they're hundreds or thousands of miles apart.
One of the gloves, referred to as the "Flex" glove, senses the bends in one's finger and sends these signals to the other glove named "Feel." The "Feel" glove is equipped with tactile sensors that allow the wearer to "feel" the movements in the form of vibrotactile sensations. Supposedly, these vibrations replicate a human touch. All that's required to use the technology is a working WiFi connection and someone on the other end.
"The motivation of working on touch comes from my personal experience of being in a long-distance relationship when I was separated from my partner two years ago," says Samarth Singhal, a graduate student and one of the main designers on the touch technology. "We had been using Skype and text messaging for supporting and maintaining our relationship, but these tools can only connect a couple to a certain extent. There was a need to be able to touch and feel each other."
All that's required to use the technology is a working WiFi connection and someone on the other end.
The gloves attempt to take things to the next level for couples who aren't close by. With the vibrotactile (vibrating) actuators on the palm side of the fingers, the partner wearing the "Feel" glove can move his or her hand to different parts of their body, adjusting the pressure to fit their needs and desires. Squeeze is just one of many possibilities.
In their tests, the team discovered that couples mainly engaged in four kinds of interactions: shared actions (where they tried to do the same gesture), playful activities (massage and tickling), intimate acts (moving gloves to sensitive parts), and presence (using the gloves to feel their partner's presence).
Carman Neustaedter, an associate professor at Simon Fraser University's School of Interactive Arts and Technology (SIAT) and author of Connecting Families: The Impact of New Communication Technologies on Domestic Life, said their focus was on simple touch gestures, such as hand holding or light massages. They purposefully designed the gloves to be open-ended, however, so couples could choose actions that matched their relationship needs and personalities.
"We weren't intending the design to be focused on sexual interactions, though one could, of course, use it for such purposes," he said.
The team evaluated the gloves with a lab-based study involving nine couples who were previously in a long-distance relationship. Participants said Flex-N-Feel allowed them to be more emotionally connected over a Skype call. Yet some people are skeptical. Olga Mecking, who maintained a long-distance relationship for several years, thinks the gloves are a little too weird. "But I felt the same way about Skype," she told me.
Neustaedter said they plan to keep iterating on their glove design and augmenting them with other technologies. For example, Singhal has designed 360-degree immersive viewing as part of a video conferencing system. And the lab is also working on a virtual reality video conferencing system that lets a person see through their partner's eyes and telepresence robots that can move around in each other's homes and feel like they are living together.
"These projects and more will offer long-distance couples a range of ways to connect over distance so they can feel closer to one another," says Neustaedter.
Yet technology, even the virtual touch from a glove, can never replace physical intimacy. There's something about the shivers from a gentle whisper in your ear that plastic and wires can never replicate.