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Star-crossed, Wi-Fi-enabled lovers

Image credit: Pillowtalk

Today’s love sonnets are revealed onscreen and letting someone know you are thinking of them requires not so much a love connection as reliable Wi-Fi.

Over the centuries, when lovers found themselves far apart, they expressed their emotions in handwritten letters. Whether the message was eloquent or simple, the letter told the recipient the sender was thinking of them even though they were miles apart. It could be read again and again to keep the loved one ‘alive’ in their memory. In the 20th century, the handwritten billet-doux has been largely replaced by emails and texts which serve the same purpose, to remind the reader someone is thinking of them.

There are also tactile ways that technology in the 21st century can remind separated lovers that they are important to someone. Wearable technology fashion brand CuteCiruit introduced the haptic telecommunication HugShirt in 2002. Sensors and actuators are embedded into the long-sleeved T-shirt to allow the wearer to send and receive hugs. A hug is sent by the wearer who hugs the shirt they are wearing and the sensors send the hug’s location, strength, and intensity data via Bluetooth to their phone’s HugShirt app, which transmits the data to a connected shirt in which the actuators deliver the hug to the wearer. The HugShirt is created from soft and stretchable digitally printed fabric so there are no wires connecting sensors and actuators.

To find the right location for the sensors and actuators, the designers used “body storming” sessions involving volunteers hugging each other for long periods to map out the popular positions of hands on bodies.

CuteCircuit says: “We believe that in the future, our bodies will become the interface to data and clothing will become an intelligent second skin, enabling wearers to connect with each other in a more intuitive and intimate manner.”

As well as hugging loved ones, friends and family members while travelling or working away, the HugShirt can also be used for elderly and paediatric patients who may appreciate a hug from a loved one but cannot risk physical contact.

“Being hugged by a trusted person may act as an effective means of conveying support, and increasing the frequency of hugs might be an effective means of reducing the deleterious effects of stress,” says Sheldon Cohen, a professor of Psychology at Carnegie Mellon University. “The apparent protective effect of hugs may be attributable to the physical contact itself or to hugging being a behavioural indicator of support and intimacy.”

Neuroscientists believe that physical touch activates the brain’s orbitofrontal cortex, relating to social and emotional behaviour. Studies have shown that touch activates the body’s vagus nerve, which can lower the heart rate and release oxytocin (the ‘love hormone’), which is associated with social bonding, trust, loyalty and arousal.

Another touchy-feely experience is provided by the Flex-N-Feel emotive gloves, developed by researchers at the School of Interactive Arts and Technology at Simon Fraser University in Canada.

The pair of interconnected gloves is divided between the separated lovers. One partner wears the Flex glove, which has sensors made from Velostat, a conductive material that is pressure-sensitive. The sensors capture the flexing or bending of finders and transmit a value for each bend to transmit vibrotactile sensations via Bluetooth to the Feel glove, worn by the other partner. The Feel glove has three actuators on the underside of each finger. Different tactile sensations can be conveyed by varying the frequency, amplitude, duration and rhythm of the vibrotactile sensations. The researchers created a waveform in which the actuators reach maximum amplitude before slowly reducing it by transferring it to the next actuator in the line. Maximum amplitude is determined by the flex action of each finger in the Flex glove.

By placing the actuators at the palm side of the fingers, the partner wearing the Feel glove can move it to different parts of the body, explains the researchers Samarth Singhal, Carman Neustaedter, Alissa N Antle and Brendan Matkin. For example, placing the gloved hand on their shoulder or arm to feel the ‘touch’. How gently or firmly the hand is placed, varies the vibrotactile sensations experienced.
To avoid alarming surprises or embarrassing situations, a soft switch is incorporated into each glove, to initiate contact. Once pressed, the small LED on each glove starts blinking and when the wearer of the other glove presses their soft switch, remote touch can be initiated.

The current prototype uses one pair of gloves for two people, allowing one to only send remote touches and the other to only receive them. A second pair of Flex-N-Feel would be needed for two-way interaction, with one Flex glove and one Feel glove worn by each partner.

Little Riot’s founder and CEO Joanna Montgomery created Pillow Talk, an interconnected bracelet “to help you feel a connection and a sense of presence with your partner, without having to actively engage with technology”. It is typically used by couples in long-distance relationships and is popular with military families.

Pillow Talk (pictured above) is a pair of wristbands worn by each partner when they are asleep. A small heartbeat sensor inserted into the soft, flexible wristband is paired to a smartphone app, which transmits the wearer’s heartbeat to the other partner’s paired phone in real-time. This allows them to listen using the phone, headphones or the speaker supplied in the Pillow Talk pack. The speaker can be placed under a pillow or beside the bed. Users report that it is just like sleeping beside their loved one.

Pillow Talk was part of a pilot study in a hospital’s paediatric ward. Very young children or babies did not wear the wristband but instead had the speaker paired to their parent’s wristband placed on their bed or in a soft toy. Staff noticed that the children who could hear their mother’s heartbeat were calmer, cried less, and their heart and breathing rates were lower. It is thought that these factors could contribute to a quicker recovery because the patient is more relaxed. In an unrelated study in the US, a recording of a healthy heartbeat was played to some babies who showed the same effects and they also gained more weight than the babies who were not exposed to the recording.

The feedback from parents was also positive. They felt they were contributing to their child’s wellbeing and nursing staff reported that parents were less anxious about leaving their child in hospital and reacted better to any setbacks or bad news. They were happier to leave, go home, perhaps attend to other children in the family and get a good night’s sleep and feel less guilty about doing that because all the time they could be wearing the wristband and sending their heartbeat to their child, explains Montgomery.

Since Covid-19 it has also been used in more wards to help families feel connected with other members, old and young, and by family members, typically siblings, where mental health issues may mean someone is struggling with sleep or anxiety.

Adults can also stay connected with products like FeelHey’s Hey Bracelet and Bond Touch’s eponymous bracelet. The bracelets are paired to a smartphone app and the wearer can send a touch or gentle hug to their partner’s bracelet. Hey Bracelet uses the app to send a ‘squeeze’ rather than a vibration or a buzz alert to the partner’s bracelet. Touching the Bond Touch bracelet sends a gentle vibration to the paired bracelet. Users can let their partner know their mood by selecting different coloured lights that will show on the other wearer’s bracelet. The app’s chatroom is encrypted for private, secure messaging.

Another way of letting those you love but cannot be with know that you are thinking of them is to send messages (up to 264 characters), pictures and other personal mementoes via Lovebox. The bamboo cuboid also relies on Wi-Fi and a smartphone app but allows a certain creativity, more reminiscent of personalised, lovingly crafted love letters. It was created by Jean Gregoire when he moved to Boston, leaving his fiancé in Europe. Described as combining “the sentiment of letters with the efficiency of texts”, users can send photos, personalised love notes or drawings via the Lovebox app. The heart on the front of Lovebox whizzes round and round to notify the paired user, who can lift the lid to reveal the message, image or note from a loved one far away.

Smartphone apps which create closed chat spaces and shared resources for paired phones can also be used by lovesick couples. One, Couples, has an encrypted chatroom in case any of the shared content is too racy to risk someone else glancing at your phone. It also has a ‘kiss’ feature whereby one user can place their thumbprint on the phone screen which shows on the paired phone screen. When the second user places their thumbprint in the same position, the phones vibrate to deliver a ‘kiss’.

Scrolling through the app’s features, however, reminds you that the path of true love never runs smooth – there is the option to ‘unpair’ listed in the settings menu.

As technology progresses, what other ways will allow us to keep in touch when we are apart from those we love?

Mark Zuckerberg has accelerated plans for a meta universe. The idea of an immersive, networked 3D world to replace the 2D internet universe has been talked about since the first avatar stomped around a virtual-reality (VR) setting. Today, researchers at Cardiff University are investigating whether holograms will be a feasible way to ease loneliness for old people living on their own. The project is using a VR headset and a telepresence robot, which can beam images and sounds of friends and relatives in various forms, such as a hologram. If VR headsets and holographic images can be shown to alleviate loneliness for elderly people living on their own, the mixed-reality scenario could easily transfer to separated lovers being able to talk ‘face to face’ as holographic images.

Consumer technology

Love labours lost

Some attempts at using technology to keep the love alive have been more successful than others.

To make people feel connected when far apart, Frederic Petrignani developed the Frebble to “hug or hold hands with loved ones across the internet”. His company, Holland Haptics, created the smooth, handheld Frebble. It is designed to be used during video chats for an “added, livelier dimension to video chats”.

The elongated tear-shaped device is approximately 125mm long and moulded from impact-resistant plastic with two rubberised padded areas to provide grip. Two pressure sensors register a ‘squeeze’ and two vibration motors on the sides are activated during the squeeze.

An LED shows the status of the Bluetooth connection to the PC using Skype or FaceTime for a video chat, and the Frebble app. When one person squeezes the Frebble, the corresponding one applies pressure to the paired one. The sensation is described as like the ‘rumble’ of a gaming device.

Another noteworthy attempt was Kissenger, which featured a cartoon-like pair of lips below the number pad. The artificial lips were able to detect the pressure, speed, temperature, and suction of the caller’s lips as they were pressed to them. The intensity of each of these parameters would be transmitted to a loved one’s ‘KissPhone’; they can then press their lips to their phone’s artificial mouth and receive the kiss.

The idea of sending kisses was also on the minds of researchers at the Imagineering Institute in Malaysia. They have created an extension for the base of a mobile phone case which has an oval silicon pad which measures the same dynamic forces as the Kissenger, using force sensors to send the data to a paired phone. The receiver applies their lips to the silicon on their own Kissenger and miniature linear actuators reproduce the same intensity of force to deliver the kiss via the internet and in real-time.

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