It’s no surprise that touch has a major impact on the interactions people have every day, but recent research shows touch can also play a role when the “people” we interact with are virtual.

According to the study from the University of Twente, virtual characters that touch you are considered warmer and friendlier by study participants. Previous studies had already proven this to be the case in real life person-to-person interaction, but now there is evidence it’s true even when one of the “people” interacting is virtual.

The study was led by Gijs Huisman, Ph.D., who wanted to investigate how virtual touch would affect study participants. The study utilized a virtual sleeve that was put around participants’ arms while they were in a virtual world. Huisman’s research is part of a bigger study that is examining the effects of being touched by a computer. Huisman has also developed the HEY bracelet, a tool that also utilizes virtual touch.

During the study, participants wore a sleeve fit around their arm that vibrated and simulated the feeling of being caressed. Subjects entered the corresponding virtual world and interacted with avatars. Whenever these avatars touched them, the sleeve vibrated. The avatars that touched the subject were considered nicer than those who did not.

Touch is Needed for People to Thrive

In previous studies, touch was proven to be a basic biological need. Those who are touched tend to be more social toward the person applying the touch, and touch is believed to be soothing and stress-relieving.
There is also a great deal of evidence concerning touch and child development. Children who are touched often in childhood tend to have stronger immune systems and fewer learning difficulties.

Huisman’s research is exploring how touch could be used long-distance and how virtual characters could offer touch therapy to those in need.

According to Huisman: “Computers of the future will involve more physical interaction. Actually, it’s a bit odd that this hasn’t happened already, given the importance of touch in human contact. Personal assistant applications for smartphones, such as Siri, will tend to become even more human as time goes on. Not only will these assistants be able to understand what you are saying, they will also register the underlying emotions and respond accordingly. In future, Siri will give you a pat on the back, to encourage you to go for a run. Or it will try to comfort you, by squeezing your hand. Touch makes the experience more intense and strengthens the sense of ‘presence’. It all seems much more real. This could be very useful in the context of online coaching or online therapy, for example. But it could also be used in horror video games, to simulate something grabbing hold of you. Remote touch can also help you to strengthen ties with people who live far away, such as lonely elderly people. The possibilities are endless.”

 Bracelet Makes Long-Distance Touch Possible

The study was not Huisman’s only foray into examining the power of touch. He is the creator of the HEY bracelet, which already makes remote touch possible. The bracelet uses a gentle pinch, as opposed to vibration to simulate human touch. Huisman explains “People can use the HEY bracelet to touch one another at a distance. When you squeeze your bracelet, your loved one’s bracelet squeezes them.”

The bracelet uses advanced technology that links via Bluetooth to your smartphone. There is currently a Kickstarter campaign running to enable mass production of the device. Huisman is thrilled there is so much enthusiasm over the bracelet and he wants to make it possible for people around the world to experience intimacy, even if there is physical distance.