Think you spend too much time online these days? It's only going to get worse as mobile and virtual reality technology gets us connected more often, more inextricably and to the detriment of our "real world" social lives. Which is why researchers like the guys at Tachi Labs are starting to work on how to break down the benefits of physical human interaction and see how they can be replicated in a virtual world. It's early days yet, so the HaptiHug interface and the rest of the iFeel_IM! Affective Haptics suite are painfully awkward and dorky, but this could be a glimpse into the kinds of technologies that can satisfy some of our needs for physical contact and help keep us sane as more and more of our lives go digital.

The healing power of a hug in a virtual world

Personal interactions and relationships are among the most important things in our lives. Beyond just food, water and shelter, people need to be around people. But even as the world's population has become more centralized and urban than ever before, bringing people physically closer together, the rise of the internet and its virtual worlds and online communities has led to a situation where many people are physically and geographically isolated from a lot of the others they care about.

This situation is only going to accelerate - imagine the amount of time you spent online ten years ago. Think about how much extra time you spend online now that you've got a smartphone - and imagine how much easier it will be to reject the real world and plug into the matrix as mobile devices, virtual reality and other immersive systems develop into the future.

There's so much available to you on the Web, 24/7 - so much entertainment, information and virtual community - the chance to create new friends and even romantic liaisons without getting out of your office chair. But as much as these virtual shenanigans can tickle the social sections of our brains, we're wired to need more.

Physical contact - a handshake, a hug, a slap on the back, a playful wrestle, a touch on the arm - conveys an amazing amount of information more or less directly to our subconscious minds. But more importantly, it's able to generate an emotional warmth and connection that a thousand emoticons can't match... at least, if you're doing it right.

And in this context, perhaps this device is a little less creepy and bizarre. Tachi Labs has put together what it calls an "affective haptics" package that, putting things simply, brings a bit of physical touch to your virtual interactions.

The Tachi Labs iFeel_IM! Affective Haptics suite

It's a giant step back from the magical world of teledildonics, the emerging field of technology that aims to let people experience physical sexual contact as part of a virtual chat session; the Tachi Labs iFeel_IM! package is much more platonic.

Instead, it has a hugging module, that's worn like a vest. The HaptiHug Interface sits over the shoulders, and when it receives certain signals, particularly from your Second Life session, it contracts to give a hugging sensation. So as your Second Life avatars embrace each other on the screen, you get the physical sensation of a hug at the same time, and presumably some of the physical contact chemicals that come with it.

Of course, this means you have to wear the vest *just in case* you might get a hug online - and how much of a clown would you feel like if you wore it for a few hours and didn't ever get a hug? Also, the two big fake hands on the back of the HaptiHug pretty much rule it out if you're in public anywhere.

The HaptiHug is joined by other modules - there's the HaptiHeart, a large heart-shaped bib that creates sonic heartbeat pulses "for the evocation of sadness, anger and fear." There's the HaptiButterfly and the rather more disturbing HaptiTickler to help you experience joy, by rubbing your tummy to simulate that 'butterflies in your stomach' feeling of young love, and by electronically tickling you. "Experimental results revealed that HaptiButterfly was very successful in eliciting joy emotion."

There's the HaptiShiver, which blows cool air down your spine, and the mysterious HaptiTemper, which is supposed to help you experience fear.

Wire yourself up to the full iFeel_IM! kit, and apart from looking like a complete galoot, you're ready to have your online adventures enhanced by all these physical stimuli. If you want to get a glimpse of the iFeel_IM kit in action, take a look at this YouTube video, which gets incredibly painful to watch around the 1:57 mark and seems to go downhill from there.

OK, it looks pretty crappy

We shouldn't laugh. While it's easy to feel that these sorts of devices will never replace real human interaction, it's interesting to see researchers trying to break down exactly what it is that we need from interpersonal interaction to keep us happy and engaged and get the feel-good chemicals flowing.

After all, if they finally crack the code and produce a device that can give you all the benefits of physical closeness remotely, synthesizing all the same feel-good chemicals you get from interpersonal affection, who's to say that experience will be any less real or valuable than hugging your grandma in person? And devices like Paro the baby seal companion robot are already showing a frighteningly effective way of disarming us and making us feel happy whether we want to or not.

Food for thought. And if you're out there HaptiHugging, and you want to take it up a level without going all the way, there's always the KissPhone remote kissing interface (gulp).

More info over at Tachi Labs.

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