How people deal with the lack of physical contact

Physical touch is crucial to a human’s well-being. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, people have experienced how it is to reduce social and physical contacts to a minimum. Keeping distance to others is the only way to minimize the infection rates and flatten the curve. We asked people from different countries how they normally physically interact with others, what changed during the coronavirus crisis and how they think physical touch is going to evolve in the future now that everyone has experienced life without it.

by Katharina Holzinger, Carina Irimia and Alina Lackerbauer

In recent years, scientists and companies from all over the world developed so called touch technologies to replicate actual physical touch between people, for example by sending out vibrations. Most of these technologies are meant to keep couples in long distance relationships in touch. Yet, the coronavirus outbreak has shown how the lack of physical contact can concern everyone. We talked to Samarth Singhal from the School of Interactive Arts and Technology in Surrey, BC, Canada, who has worked on gloves that initiate touch via vibrotactile sensations.

Global Journalism: How do people deal with the lack of physical contact?

Singhal: »I moved to Canada in 2015. I left behind my family and my girlfriend back home in India. I was more concerned about communication between couples. I thought it was an interesting problem to solve. We all use digital media on a regular basis, but it lacks the physical sensation of the intimacy you need, especially with your partner. So that was the whole motivation to basically connect couples over distance«

Global Journalism: How do they function?

Singhal: »The gloves are called Flex-N-Feel. It works over bluetooth and over WiFi as well, so people on other sides of the globe can also join. The Flex part is basically where you flex or bend your fingers and this movement is then transported to the Feel glove, where you feel the vibrations. The way it’s designed, it is very flexible in nature. You can put the Feel glove on your body and move it around. It is like moving your partners arm to different parts of the body. We also thought about how you initiate a touch. Normally when you want to hug someone you just do it. But in this case, we also thought about the different situations and different time zones. We developed a soft-switch that you can press and it initiates a touch. It functions like a LED mechanism. If you press the light on your glove, the light on your partner’s glove starts blinking. They can choose to respond to the request by pressing the soft-switch on their own glove and feel the touch. Another ability of our glove is that you can adjust the amount of pressure of the touch«

Global Journalism: Can a vibrotactile glove actually resemble human touch?

Singhal: »Yes, a vibrotactile sensation is very close to what a human touch feels like. Obviously it lacks the warmth of a real touch, it cannot replicate that. In general vibrotactile sensations are the closest you can get to human touch at this point«

Global Journalism: Can you buy the gloves?

Singhal: »No, it is a prototype. We never went into mass production. It was too early for this kind of technology«

Global Journalism: Do you think people would buy the gloves if they were on the market?

Singhal: »I think so. There definitely is a market now. When we did it in 2017, there wasn’t really. Now with the pandemic and people keeping their distance from each other, there might be a market for these types of products«

Global Journalism: How do you think the corona pandemic changed how people feel about the importance or unimportance of physical touch?

Singhal: »I am not sure that I know the answer to that, but I do know that physical contact is really crucial to humans and their mental well-being. People do need to be touched from their loved and cared ones. Obviously with the pandemic, we are mostly concerned about handshakes and those kinds of touches«

Global Journalism: Are more people turning towards digital technologies to resemble physical touch now?

Singhal: »I believe so. I feel like if this goes on for a longer time, I think people are going to look for solutions to replicate touch, not just couples. I was presenting this glove at a demo and there was an elderly woman. She lives far away in a senior living house and her kids aren’t able to visit her. So, she was telling me, how happy it would make her if her son could send her a touch. It would mean a lot to her. That made me realize again, how crucial touch is for everyone’s mental health«

Global Journalism: How do you think tactile technology will evolve in the future? Is it a realistic alternative to actual touch?

Singhal: »Yes, it is. We still need to do more work on the sensor part and include more ways how people would like to touch each other, but in this technology comes pretty close to what people would actually do if they weren’t that far apart«

Samarth Singhal worked as a reseacher for the School of Interactive Arts and Technology at the Simon Fraser University, in Surrey, BC, Canada from 2015 to 2018. His main responsibilities included ideating and designing prototoypes in the areas of human-computer interaction and computer-supported collaboration. Now, he works as a designer for the software developer Unitey Technologies in Vancouver.