A Virtual Tug of War with an Opponent 13 Miles Away; a Virtual Hug from Across the Country

I remember reading this story over 15 years ago, and at the time, and still today, it seemed like amazing technology.

The basic idea was that a group of grade school students in Queens was going to have a tug of war with a group of students from Lower Manhattan.

And while the rope was real, everything else was done with computer and internet technology. You see, the students never competed face to face in the tug of war. Rather, they used a technology known as haptics which enabled each group of students to stay at their own classrooms, 13 miles apart.

Haptics is the science of transmitting touch and pressure long distances through phone and cable  lines and computers. The technology is of particular interest to doctors, who foresee long-distance procedures — a surgeon in New York operating on a soldier in the Mideast, for instance.

Fast forward 10 years, and I recall reading an article in Psychology Today not so long ago about the power of touch. The article noted that touch is the first sense we acquire and the secret weapon in many a successful relationship. Studies have found that seemingly insignificant touches yield bigger tips for waitresses, that people shop and buy more if they’re touched by a store greeter, and that strangers are more likely to help someone if a touch accompanies the request.

There’s also the reciprocal nature of touch, you can’t touch without being touched. Studies have shown that a person giving a hug gets just as much benefit as a person being hugged.

Research also shows that touch is the best way to comfort. If you ask people how they’d comfort someone in a given situation, they tend to list pats, hugs, and different kinds of touch behaviors more than anything else.

Given all the benefits of physical contact, I wondered if such benefits could be achieved through haptics technology.

So while searching the web for an answer, I came across this interesting article, “Haptic gloves bring long-distance couples a touch closer“. The gloves are each fitted with sensors attached to microcontrollers, and a Wi-Fi module. When the fingers on one hand are flexed or bent, the signal is sent via Wi-Fi to the sensors in the other glove, which will vibrate to recreate the motion. Couples can hold or stroke each other’s hands, or even give their partner a light massage, from basically anywhere.

I know it’s not the same as the real thing, but it seems like the next best thing.

If touch is such a basic human need, then haptic technology seems to hold great promise. Given that isolation is a growing epidemic, the ability to connect with people using virtual hugs and massages could play a vital role in helping such lonely feel connected to others.

I envision a future where a son or daughter moves away from home for the first time, comes home after a tough day at work, puts a “towel” on his shoulders, calls home and his mom gives him a quick neck rub from the other side of the country.

I’ve always thought the best thing about the internet was its power to create communities. Haptics is just one more way to take advantage of internet technology for the benefit of bringing people closer together.

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