You can send a hug through the internet with this haptic invention

The sensation of touch is crucial to human wellbeing. This innovation promises to make physical contact with others possible, even when they're thousands of miles away.
Written by Rajiv Rao, Contributing Writer
Son hugging father
Getty Images/PeopleImages

Mata Amritanandamayi, a 69-year-old Indian spiritual leader known simply as Amma, or "mother," is a global icon who is also referred to as the hugging saint.

Born in a fishing village in the state of Kerala into a modest background, she became deeply affected by the plight of her poorer neighbors, so much so that she became a regular provider of food and clothing to them.

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Today, according to the New York Times, her charities cover everything from disaster relief and free health care for the poor to free meals, orphanages, and recycling initiatives. Many of these charities are located in the United States.

However, her signature event is one where she sits in a large auditorium, either at home, in India or in one of thousands of auditoriums across the world, and hugs people for up to fifteen hours non-stop.

The human touch

Amma's serial hugging may seem like an antic at first.  

Yet, since the coronavirus pandemic, if there is one thing we humans have collectively felt and can agree upon is that loneliness -- or the lack of human contact -- is devastating for our species. And within that truth lies our craving for the sensation of touch.

The virus robbed us of, perhaps, the most crucial of social human acts. We went from handshakes in workplaces and hugs with friends and family to lockdowns and stringent no-contact rules. 

This pandemic-induced deprivation even gave birth to the term touch starvation to try and encompass the spiraling rates of depression and anxiety that followed in the wake of the pandemic.

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In more proof that psychological conditions are often triggered by physical factors, experiments have demonstrated that scanning a stressed person's brain induces a quietness in them when their hand is held, and even if that's by a stranger.

For newborn infants, touch is a survival tool, since being held dramatically regulates heart and breathing rates, and its absence has been known to cause distress.

All of this significance makes sense when we consider the intricate network of nerve fibers on our skin that have evolved to detect and respond to someone else's touch.

Touch allows the triggering of the three hormones that promote wellbeing -- oxytocin, also known as the 'love hormone'; serotonin, which regulates mood; and dopamine, which is a pleasure-inducing neurotransmitter.

What, then, if we were to take Amma's philosophy of soothing touch and channel it through the internet?

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What if you could hug your loved one for that much-needed comfort in good times and bad, and feel the reassuring contours of their back and hands, even though they are a thousand miles away?

Now, a team of scientists from the the City University of Hong Kong have devised an e-skin marvel that allows you to do just that, pushing the frontiers of tactile science, and creating new possibilities for solutions within the realms of augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR).

Wiring touch

An illustration of a person sending and receiving touch feedback using an e-skin patch along with a 3D layered graphic of the e-skin

A novel e-skin devised by City University of Hong Kong's engineers will allow you to send and receive hugs through the internet.

City University of Hong Kong via Science Advances, Volume 8, Issue 51

Haptic feedback is a popular and rapidly evolving technology that allows humans to "feel" things, such as the vibration of a gaming controller in your hand. 

Fused with the worlds of AR and VR, technologists envision being able to do things like train surgeons or jet-engine technicians via 3D images and a glove that can provide intricate feedback. Location suddenly becomes irrelevant.

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However, the problem until now is that providing touch sensation and feeling haptic feedback or reproduction simultaneously has been impossible. 

Now scientists in Hong Kong have been able to do both things at one time -- receive the physical sensation of a handshake (haptic feedback) while simultaneously sending out wireless, contactless touch that someone else can feel on the other side of a connection.

What's more, you can wire an entire network, so that thousands of people can feel one sensation in what the scientists call a touch intercom.

How it works

On a 4.2 mm-thick skin-like patch sits a flexible, electronic circuit board that houses a 4x4 array of sensors called actuators, along with a microcontroller and a Bluetooth module.

These actuators, which are each about the size of a dime, are made up of a flexible coil, a soft silicone support, and they act like buttons.

Flexible patches with buttons on a human arm, leg and back

Flexible e-skins with 'actuators' allow for a 'touch intercom' with thousands of people.

City Universty of Hong Kong via Science Advances, Volume 8, Issue 51

When a user presses and releases an actuator button, a current is generated through the principle of electromagnetic induction and is then transformed into a digital signal by an analog-to-digital converter on the e-skin's circuit board. 

This signal is dispatched via Bluetooth, through the internet to another e-skin that is similarly outfitted with the same actuators.

On the receiving end, the reverse process occurs -- the same digital signal is converted to analog for haptic feedback. The longer the actuator button is pressed, the longer and more powerful the sensation or vibration felt on the receiving side. 

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Outfitted with 15 actuators, these e-skins are able to accomplish bio-directional touch transmission simultaneously.

"Our e-skin can communicate with Bluetooth devices and transmit data through the internet with smartphones and computers to perform ultralong-distance touch transmission, and to form a touch Internet of Things (IoT) system, where one-to-one and one-to-multiple touch delivery could be realised," said the lead scientist, associate professor Yu Xinge, in a paper published in Science Advances.

"Friends and family in different places could use it to 'feel' each other…This form of touch overcomes the limitations of space and greatly reduces the sense of distance in human communication," he added.

Cognitive psychologist Jeremy Bailenson, who is director of Stanford University's Virtual Interaction Lab, is a big fan. "What we've shown in our studies is that this virtual touch is well received. You can actually pull emotion from it," he said. "People could very accurately, twice above what chance would predict, understand the other person's emotion through this virtual reality touch," he said to CNN.

"And what my research has shown is that from a psychological kind of perceptual standpoint, people perceive virtual touch in a way that they do physical touch when it comes to emotional gestures," he added.

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Beyond tactile emotional nourishment, the technology has major implications for telemedicine, where doctors can perform physical examinations, and for the visually impaired, who could benefit from touch-based direction via e-skins, and there's also potential for messages in braille.

The technology could become indispensable in video-game design, entertainment, and innumerable other applications that use remote touch and feedback. And just imagine what the hugging saint could do with it.

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