With Remote Hand-Holding Tech, We Can Touch Each Other Around the World

"It will be as common as making a telephone call or using your webcam.”

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Jun 10 2014, 8:23pm
Image: Frebble

You can easily see and hear things on the internet, and of the remaining three senses, the senses of smell and taste seem both far off and not quite necessary. The internet of touch and texture, however, feels much more possible and desirable. And it's on its way.

“In the 19th century you have speech in the distance from the telephone. In the 20th you get sight with a webcam and now its time to invent products who feel at a distance,” Frederic Petrignani, CEO of the Dutch technology firm Holland Haptics, told me over the phone. “Many people are trying to do just that. When we succeed it will be as common as making a telephone call or using your webcam.”

Thus far this desire to bring back touch in the digital age has wrought remote-controlled wearable tech for the body's most sensitive areas—lots of bluetooth-connected vibrating things for the bedroom so your significant other can have the thrill of, well, pushing buttons.

 

But for all the thrill and giggling surrounding an incredibly named product like Funderwear, there's also a more modest implication of haptic technology, a device that lets you physically hold hands over the internet.

Petrignani is the inventor of the “Frebble." It's designed to be a “silent, portable, affordable” way to enclose someone's hand at a distance.

“Holding hands or social touch is so important to people,” he said. “People use that sense all day; if you allow them to use the sense of touch, they will use it.”

The Frebble is one of the more narrowly designed internet-connected hands; it's just for social touch. You can't pick anything up with it, and sexiness, with just the single displacement actuator, sexiness is pretty much out of the question. Which is why from the beginning it has had a different audience in mind than long-distance lovers.

"It will be as common as making a telephone call or using your webcam.”

“Out of the tests, it came that it was really a success with families and children,” Petrignani said. “We found out that nearly all children have someone in their lives who is at a distance. It could be a friend who moved a way, or a grandmother who lives in another country, we even found children whose parents are mostly away.”

In spite of looking more like a phaser than a hand, Petrignani told me that the frebble sufficiently creates the effect/illusion of social touch between kids and parents. When the ergonomic handle of one frebble is squeezed, the corresponding frebble puts pressure on the back of the hand of whoever's holding its match.

The simple design also spares Holland Haptics the challenging of making the more complex shape of human hand, making it possible for it to be just a $50,000 Kickstarter away from coming to market.

"There are challenges with that,” Petrignani said. “It tends to become expensive, but also do you really want to walk around with a fake hand? That's really no.”

He has a point. The Chinese University of Hong Kong demonstrated a robot hand for remote hand-holding that looks anything but intimate . It's deep in the uncanny valley, and comes in a one-size fits all in surgical glove white. Given that neither the Frebble nor this hand looks anything like my girlfriend's, I guess the portability and cost make the Frebble the likelier of the two options Honestly, carrying around a robot hand for companionship seems like just about the loneliest image in the world.

But the robot hand is, in theory, more dynamic than the Frebble, allowing the user to do things like pick stuff up. Although the goal of the Chinese University of Hong Kong team was just to create, basically, a toy, questions of latency and a more seamless interface are interesting engineering challenges, and a resemblance to humanity may always be the gold standard.

Then again if you're really going for usefulness, why stop at what nature gave humans? Robot guitarists don't limit themselves with hands like ours, elegant as they are, so why should your remote presence?

Perhaps the haptic web won't look anything like your handsEstablishing a remote presence may not mean using robotic hands at all.

 
inFORM from MIT's Tangible Media Group

I called Daniel Leitinger (who plays with the ball in the video above) at MIT's Tangible Media Group, who appeared in one of the most compelling remote presence videos I've seen. The inFORM is basically one of those toys where the pins hang through a plastic board that you'd press onto your hands and it would appear contoured above, but remotely.

As described by Motherboard's Meghan Neal, researchers demonstrated how “from behind the screen—called a "Dynamic Shape Display"—and with the help a hacked Kinect camera, the user's hand gestures can create and manipulate 3D objects as if they were really touching them. It’s a physical manifestation of digital information.”

Leitinger told me that you won't be buying inFORM in any form any time soon, as it “is unlikely to become any product in its form, but there's a lot of exciting technology around the corner that will allow displays to change shape.” If you compare the tech—and video—of the inFORM to its predecessor—the inTOUCH—it seems like they're developing in leaps and bounds.

 

InTOUCH 1998 from Tangible Media Group on Vimeo.

More than the Frebble or the robohand, the inFORM seems obviously useful.

“For us when we started thinking about remote collaboration or presence,” Leitinger said. “If you're doing something on a screen there's always a disconnect. You never feel like you're in the same space and sharing the space or discussion. We thought that would be a really powerful thing: A creative space where you have a set-up where both of you share a model and can see it, and have the ability to point to something or interact with you in that way.”

But just as inFORM is in some ways the most ambitious of these three, it is the furthest from being buyable, and Leitinger admitted that there were still practical questions to answer before Motherboard comes in an inFORM version.

“There's certain requirements when it comes to bandwidth or latency, and right now its just tricky to build,” he said. “So problems you have to solve engineering-wise. But we definitely think its a route to go in the future and that the technologies will be there eventually, and eventually we'll be able to reach out and touch somebody across the globe. That's where we want to go. Not only that but have the collaboration with someone and feel like we're in the same room, sharing ideas like we would if we were across the table from each other.”

The internet of things is here; the internet of feels can't be far behind.