SFU ro­bots make long-dis­tance re­la­tion­ships more bear­able

Metro Canada (Vancouver) - - NEWS | VANCOUVER - Wanyee Li

A long-dis­tance cou­ple plan to have a ro­man­tic din­ner Tues­day for Valen­tine’s Day, but it won’t be in per­son — it will be done with the help of a ro­bot and tech­nol­ogy cre­ated at Si­mon Fraser Univer­sity.

SFU pro­fes­sor Dr. Car­man Neustaedter and his re­search team con­ducted a study where peo­ple com­mu­ni­cate to their loved one in another coun­try through a mo­bile telep­res­ence ro­bot, made by Suit­able Tech­nolo­gies. In Tues­day’s case, the study par­tic­i­pant will sit at the din­ner ta­ble with the ro­bot, which will be con­trolled by their ro­man­tic part­ner.

It’s a vastly dif­fer­ent ex­pe­ri­ence from com­mu­ni­cat­ing via video call, said Neustaedter, who teaches at SFU’s School of In­ter­ac­tive Art and Tech­nol­ogy.

“We’re find­ing the abil­ity to ac­tu­ally move in a re­mote space adds this huge dif­fer­ence that makes you feel like you are much more present in the lo­ca­tion.”

Con­trol­ling the ro­bot is sim­ple, and can be done via key­board and mouse or with an Xbox con­troller. But the tech­nol­ogy is not a game, warned Neustaedter — it has real-life ef­fects on re­la­tion­ships.

“It shifts re­la­tion­ship dy­nam­ics a bit to em­power both peo­ple,” he said, point­ing out that in a Skype or Facetime call, the lo­cal per­son is able to po­si­tion the we­b­cam wher­ever he or she wants. The ro­bot changes that and even al­lows the re­mote per­son to in­ter­act with the lo­cal en­vi­ron­ment.

Neustaedter says the feed­back from cou­ples in the study, who each spent a month with the ro­bot, has been promis­ing.

“It’s been re­ally pos­i­tive. We’ve tested all of th­ese tech­nolo­gies to un­der­stand whether they in­crease peo­ple’s sense of so­cial pres­ence — the sense that your part­ner is in the same room, or right next to you,” he ex­plained.

“All of them say yes, it cre­ates a stronger pres­ence.”

Neustaedter’s re­search team is also work­ing on VR soft­ware that blends two peo­ple’s views to­gether — so that peo­ple feel like they are stand­ing in the other per­son’s shoes, and also a pair of gloves where one trans­mits ‘touch’ to the other.

The idea is each per­son in a long-dis­tance re­la­tion­ship would wear one glove. When one per­son moves their gloved hand, the other per­son would feel that move­ment from their glove. But lovesick cou­ples won’t find this tech­nol­ogy in stores any­time soon, its still in the re­search phase and a com­pany would have to pick it up, said Neustaedter.

“I’d love to see this stuff for sale, be­cause I think it re­ally adds some­thing to long-dis­tance re­la­tion­ships,” he said.


a mem­ber of the team demon­strates the glove.

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