Photo by Miquel Llonch via Stocksy
"If couples wanted to use the gloves in a sexual way, you certainly could."
When I was in high school, I used to use my webcam to talk every night with this hot guy I met on MySpace. We would chat to each other for hours, and stare at one another's bodies while talking about how much we'd like to be together in person. Like my teenage self, many people suffer the lack of physical affection that IRL intimacy enables—making long distance relationships frustrating for some.
This form of relationship exists across the world, and researchers are currently designing virtual reality technology that is meant to bridge the physical divide between them. The "Flex-N-Feel," a pair of robotic gloves that simulate touch, is a tool designed to serve this purpose; it was designed in the lab of Carman Neustaedter, an associate professor in the School of Interactive Arts and Technology at Simon Fraser University.
According to Neustaedter, the gloves are capable of many things. "You can simulate hand holding, touching one's face as a gentle caress, or even a light massage," he explained in an interview with Broadly. One dominant glove—the flex—is capable of sending touching sensations, while the other—the feel—is able to receive them. Basically, one partner makes movements with their hand while wearing the dominant glove, and those movements then activate vibrators that are placed along the receptive glove, which is worn by the other partner.
A less chaste example of what one could do: If you were wearing the receptive glove, you might place it on your vagina or penis, and your partner, wearing the dominant glove, might perform all sorts of motions to make it seem, almost, as if they were there, vibrating your genitalia in person. "Couples have used the gloves for a large range of things," Neustaedter says. "We expected simple touches, like hand holding, but couples have expanded on that to even be playful with each other."
"It was designed to be very flexible, so couples could use the gloves in whatever way made sense for their relationship," Neustaedter continues. "You can place the feeling glove on any part of your body. So if couples wanted to use the gloves in a sexual way, you certainly could, though this wasn't the focus of our design efforts."
The Flex-N-Feel also presents an intriguing model for consent in the digital age. If the dominant glove bearer wishes to vibrate, they must first press a small button, causing a little green light to blink on the receptor's mitt. The receptive partner in this virtual relationship can then decide whether or not they are willing to have their glove be vibrated. If yes, they press this little button that activates the connection; if they wish not to be vibrated, they can simply toss the glove aside and ignore its blip.
Neustaedter says that his lab has produced other technologies that can enhance long-distance relationships. "We have also designed technologies that allow a couples to share 360 degree views of their space to create a stronger sense of presence," he explains. "Couples can also look through the eyes of their partner using virtual reality displays." And it's just the beginning: "Technologies like this will be increasingly coming in the future," according to him.
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