Technology has given us lots of ways to connect with distant romantic partners, friends, and family. You can send a text message, make a phone call, or launch a video chat, among many other options. Overwhelmingly, these focus on only two of our senses: sight and hearing. But what if you could reach out and physically touch someone who was thousands of miles away? This is the driving question behind a bevy of devices that are supposed to physically connect people with a simple, universal gesture: the hug.
There are as many ways to remotely hug someone as there are variations of real-world hugs. There’s the MIT Media Lab’s Like-a-Hug, for example, which translates Facebook likes into an inflatable squeeze vest. There’s the FeelU RingU, which sends vibrations via a connected ring. If you don’t want to bother with special equipment, you could even hug your phone to transmit a “physical emoji,” with the iOS app Hug. None of them are supposed to substitute for a real embrace, but if you’re stuck in a different city, country, or continent, they’re the next best thing.
Physical touch from other human beings, including hugging, has known psychological and physical benefits. Studies have tied it to a reduction of the stress-related hormone cortisol, improved mental and physical development in children, and even a stronger immune system. Touch also stimulates the release of oxytocin, a hormone that plays a complex role in social bonding. (It’s often oversimplified as the “love hormone,” although its real effects are far more varied and less predictable.)
But less work has been done specifically on remote touch — forms of intimacy that come from another person, but are delivered via machine. The best-known hugging devices tend to be either experimental proofs of concept, or startup projects whose creators are focused on getting them out the door. “New devices are quickly developed and built, but tend not to be put through any kind of rigorous empirical testing,” concluded researchers Alberto Gallace and Charles Spence, who covered the state of long-distance touch devices in their 2014 book In Touch with the Future.
There are lots of remote hugging devices, but less empirical research
Sometimes, that’s because an inventor was originally inspired by individual experience. Parihug, one of the newest hugging devices, started out as a hackathon project with very personal relevance to its creators. “Everyone on our team was, when they joined the team, in a long-distance relationship,” recalls CEO and founder Xyla Foxlin. “And so we designed it to [the specifications] we thought we needed at that time.” That turned out to be a pair of stuffed animals called Paris, each of which is equipped with sensors and motors. When one person hugs their Pari, their partner feels a matching vibration on the other. The group worked with the psychology department at Case Western Reserve University (Foxlin’s alma mater) to do preliminary testing in elementary schools. “We haven’t done any long-term in-house testing so far,” she says. But it’s gotten a positive response in schools and at tech shows, including last month’s CES.
Similar projects, though, have proved ephemeral. The Hug “physical emoji” app, for example, was last updated in May of 2016; its creators didn’t respond to an email. Neither did the company behind the Hug Shirt, a two-way vibrating shirt system by high-tech fashion company CuteCircuit. It got a spot on Time’s “best inventions of the year” in 2006, but doesn’t appear to be for sale.
There is, however, some scientific evidence supporting the remote hug. A 2013 study in Scientific Reports asked two groups of people to have a 15-minute phone call with a stranger. Some people talked normally, while the others held a Hugvie, an abstract human-shaped cushion designed to fit a mobile phone in the “head” and simulate a heartbeat based on the speaker’s tone of voice. The ones who hugged while they talked saw greater decreases in cortisol, suggesting that the cushion had provided some of the same stress-relieving benefits as touch. (Granted, this doesn’t tell us how much the connection with a real person — as opposed to simply hugging a pillow — helped.)
Basic hug machines are already real therapeutic tools
Mechanical hugging devices, with or without a human connection, can also have more specific uses. Wei Liang Lin, CEO of a Singaporean company called Tware, says his team started out by building an inflatable jacket for remote touch. Then, an occupational therapist told them that its firm squeeze could also help kids with autism. The jacket could deliver a kind of therapy pioneered by animal science professor Temple Grandin, who created a “squeeze box” in the 1960s to help with her own autism-related anxiety. Ironically, the point of Grandin’s box was that it wasn’t like a human embrace — users could experience the comforting pressure of a hug without the overstimulation of being touched by people. Tware shifted focus, working on a device aimed specifically at therapy for people dealing with autism, ADHD, and other conditions whose negative effects can be ameliorated by deep pressure. The resulting T-Jacket, which sells for $599, has been praised by Grandin herself.
Today, the T-Jacket’s creators are slowly moving back toward their original idea. Their second project, AiraWear, is a mass-market jacket that can analyze posture and give massages. Right now, it’s controlled by the wearer via an app. But in a future version, Lin says, you could accept a virtual massage from a loved one — and maybe a hug, too.
Hugging devices sometimes get grouped under the label of “teledildonics,” a catch-all term for remote sex technology. But they might be more accurately called tele-intimacy products, facilitating basic human contact of all kinds. And in some ways, this makes them more potentially revolutionary. Basic physical contact doesn’t need to be limited to lovers; it’s a way to bond with everyone in our lives — Parihug is setting its sights on traveling parents with children at home, but Foxlin says they’ve gotten requests from all kinds of people. Most of us wouldn’t leave a sex toy out in plain sight, but a hug is something you can openly enjoy in both public and private environments, with as many people as you want. It could even add a more personal touch to internet-only friendships.
Basic tele-intimacy devices also don’t need to simulate a specific kind of sensation, just evoke a feeling. “I don’t think technology is at the point where we can create anything that will fool the brain into believing they’re having sex,” says Foxlin, although she believes we’ll develop it in the future. Parihug is designed to avoid what she calls the uncanny valley of touch. “We don’t have artificial muscles that can mimic a human. We can’t really create the body temperature of a human, or the same texture or feeling of a human. But what we can do is dial that back a lot, so it [enters] the cute realm. If it’s simplified enough, then we receive things as cute but still human.”
Whether or not this is true, the remote hug is still a novelty, not a core part of people’s communications. Many of the hug systems that have gotten press coverage were never meant for consumers, and others, like Parihug, are just starting to roll out. Some systems got lots of attention, but not much funding: the vibrating vibrating Teslasuit, for example, canceled its Kickstarter campaign after raising a little over 10 percent of its goal. While the Hug app shows how tele-intimacy could work with no extra accessories, most systems require costly and sometimes strange-looking peripherals, like the currently $172 Hugvie body pillow. Practical issues aside, some systems don’t seem reciprocal enough to be satisfying; you can either give a hug convincingly or receive one, but often not both. And right now, digital touch can’t deliver the detail and nuance of its real-life counterpart.
If enough of our relationships involve drifting apart physically, maybe simulated touch will become a necessary tool. “Long distance commuting is becoming something of a norm, so everyone is kind of separated,” says Lin. “Remote communication is going to be something that is needed — that is necessary in people’s way of life.” Until then, you could always look up a cuddle cafe.
Correction: The T-Jacket sells for $599, not $499 as previously stated.