The softness of a newborn baby’s hands belie the strength of their grip.
The intricate, miniature details of their nails, knuckles, and wrinkles are fascinating, but it’s not until they’ve got your pinkie in their grasp that you feel a real, tangible connection with them.
For remotely located fathers, absent because of work or other circumstances, it must be the lack of these tiny details that puts the biggest emotional wedge between this nascent relationship.
Now there’s a way to, at least partially, capture some of those intimate moments using video conferencing and experimental, tactile technology. It’s a touch-sensitive digital glove, and it could become a way for families divided by distance to get in those first few hugs.
Physical Touch, Virtual Reality
The technology we’re talking about is currently being developed by researchers at Canada’s Simon Fraser University. And they’ve got a more mature set of users in mind.
The so-called ‘Flex-N-Feel’ glove is being designed to give couples in long-distance relationships a way to hold hands, hug, and even massage each other over a video call.
It works by lining the palms of a set of gloves with tiny sensors connected to micro-controllers that pass on the bend and pressure of the second half of the remotely located pair.
By passing the signal over the same wifi connection that carries the couple’s visual video call, they’re able to physically feel the contours and movements of each other’s hands. Each partner has only one glove, so it looks like it takes some dexterity and imagination to pass on the intended sensation to your beloved, but it potentially adds a whole new dimension (literally) to a video call.
Families Connected Online
The Simon Fraser team have actually created a suite of online textual technologies to bring a physical element to a long-distance relationship. They include a video conferencing setup that enables video callers to take up the viewpoint of their partner and see what they see in real-time.
And there’s a live streaming service, called Be With Me, that provides a constant, interactive live stream of a remotely located room.
In the context of a romantic relationship, that last invention seems to be creeping ever so closely up to invasion-of-privacy territory. However, if it was instead deployed in baby’s room, perhaps within a mobile above a cot, it becomes a direct link between newborn and remote dad, giving the latter a chance to check-in with his child at rest and at play. It promises to give the sense of being actually present, which means not just being beamed in by video conferencing during a celebration or an exciting new development (baby just learned to crawl!), but also being there during all the peaceful, status quo moments as well.
While the innovations of the Simon Fraser team remain strictly in the developmental phase for now, it’s easy to see how they could combine to create a whole new form of remote family.
Video Calling for the Absent Parent
Such is the rapid advance of technology that we’ve seen digital renderings of the human hand transmitted via video call before. What we haven’t seen is so dexterous and intimate an intention.
It has the potential to let a remote parent participate in some of the most delicate day-to-day activities that come with being a new parent. If we could add a second glove to each user–and the researchers have already considered as much–we could translate the feeling of holding a baby over the digital video calling divide.
As Mom (we’re using the remote dad as an example here, but there are no doubt many families where the roles are reversed or under a different arrangement altogether) is dressing the little one in the morning, for instance, Dad could don the see-what-I-see perspective visuals and the touch sensitive gloves and get a near-as-being-there experience of what it’s like to try and contain the wriggling baby. As Mom lifts the baby to her eye level, so too does dad get a relayed sensation of weight and contour, and a visual, virtual moment of eye-to-eye contact.
Once you remove the eyewear and revert to a traditional video conferencing setup, Dad can hold a limited two-way conversation with the little one while Mom acts as proxy and holds baby’s hands in hers. A squeeze from Dad, perhaps in rhythm to a song or story, would be relayed through Mom to baby, and any response sent back the other way.
Scientific research has found young children can distinguish between the flat, one-way transmission of TV signals, and the dynamic two-way nature of a video call. In this very same scenario it may, in fact, actually be beneficial to them, helping them establish filial bonds–and adding touch to the range of two-way sensory experience can only help.
And so, at least in our opinion, the technology intended to foster romance between a long-distance couple may actually be better at helping make the most of a remotely located family just a little further down the road in their relationship.