Imagine a world where you never leave your home but lead a normal life via lookalike surrogates who take your place, go to work for you, shop for you, and even fall in love for you. That’s the theme of a 2009 film aptly called Surrogates, in which the earth has gotten so toxic that nobody dares to venture outside their germ-controlled home environment, instead sending robotic duplicates of themselves to do their business.
Far-fetched? Perhaps, but on the other hand, technology has just taken us one step closer to such a bizarre future. Now, it’s possible for people to not only see each other long distance via Skype, Face Time, and the like, but it’s also possible to physically touch each other without even being on the same continent.1 That’s right: teens will be able to get to second base without going through all that real-life fumbling, couples will be able to hold hands from afar, and who knows—warring partners might even be able to slap each other across the faces.
Scientists at Simon Fraser University in Surrey, Canada, have developed “Flex-N-Feel” gloves that allow those who wear them to make physical contact with other wearers via electronic tactile signals. The product developers say their intention was to help out couples who live far apart from each other.2 Research shows that three million married couples in the US live apart, often for work reasons, and anywhere from 25 to 50 percent of college students are in long-distance relationships.3
The gloves are still in a primitive developmental state, but already, when one user moves a finger, that person’s remote partner will feel the motion in his or her gloves. There are 12 sensors on each glove, and so subtle variations in movement can be felt. Theoretically, partners can send touch back and forth. I squeeze your hand; you squeeze mine.
And it’s not limited to touching hands. If you want to touch your partner’s cheek, for example, your partner just has to move his or her glove to their cheek—or wherever. The system is certainly not as elegant or intimate as being in the physical presence of a loved one, given that the glove is a big ugly black thing that looks kind of like a skinny catcher’s mitt, and that you have to place your own hand wherever on your body you want to feel your partner’s movements. On the other hand, the study authors write that, “Couples can adjust the amount of pressure used and the strength of the vibrotactile sensations by placing their hand either gently against their body or with added pressure up.” Plus, according to study director Carman Neustaedter, "Users can make intimate gestures such as touching the face, holding hands, and giving a hug."
Lest you don’t like the idea of donning big mitts, you might want to know that there are other remote developments in the works for those who want to stay in closer communication than even Skype allows. For instance, there’s an inflatable vest that allows you to feel a hug from a remote partner. And there’s the “Beam Pro Telepresence Robot,” which sports a 17-inch screen mounted on a life-sized stand with wheels.4 The robot propels from one location to another with ease. You can be on the screen from a remote location, seeing everything you wheel past, while people at the other end can see and hear you, via the screen.
Maybe the machine-like appearance won’t stimulate you the way your partner does, but if you do purchase the robot (for $16,000), it will give you the ability to follow your partner around the house in Seattle while you lounge in your Taiwan hotel room. The robot has greatly enhanced sound and noise-cancelling features and allows advanced imaging so you can see and hear far better than with teleconferencing software.
As of now, the Beam Pro and similar models are primarily used by businesses—a company executive can send a robot to attend a conference on her behalf without having to leave the office, for instance, and then meet up virtually, via the robot, with the gang at the hotel bar afterwards. Likewise, homebound students can use a cheaper version of the robot to attend classes in real-life institutions. Just think— if telepresence robots become commonplace, when your boss goes on vacation, he or she can still scuffle around the office via the robot watching your every move. Your in-laws can visit every weekend via their robot even if you move to Siberia, noticing how your housekeeping has slipped.
Domestic variations of the robot are, in fact, in the works. Although only eight have been placed in private homes by Neustaedter’s firm so far, you can bet the things will proliferate in the near future.
“The focus here is providing that connection, and in this case, a kind of physical body," says Neustaedter. “Long-distance relationships are more common today, but distance doesn't have to mean missing out on having a physical presence and sharing space. If people can't physically be together, we're hoping to create the next best technological solutions."
Before jumping on Neustaedter’s inspiration and buying a robot (or vest or mitt) to make things cozier between you and your far-away beloved, you might want to consider research indicating that distance, in fact, often doesmake the heart grow fonder and the bond between couples stronger. According to a 2013 article published in the Journal of Communication, when couples are far apart, they disclose more intimate things to each other, plus, they idealize each other to a greater extent. It might certainly put the kibosh on such idealizing if your partner’s robot wakes you up in the morning with an electronic kiss.
- 1. “Technology puts ‘touch’ into long distance relationships.” 14 February 2017. Science Daily. 9 March 2017. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/02/170214104249.htm
- 2. Singhal, Samarth; Neustadter, Carman; Antle, Alissa; and Matkin, Brendan. “Flex-N-Feel: Emotive Gloves For Physical Touch Over Distance.” http://clab.iat.sfu.ca/pubs/Singhal-FlexNFeelDemo-CSCW2017.pdf.
- 3. “Long-distance relationships can form stronger bonds than face-to-face ones.” 18 July 2013. Science Daily. 10 March 2017. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/07/130718101232.htm
- 4. https://telepresencerobots.com/robots/suitable-technologies-beam-pro