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As human beings, we got where we are by touching each other. A handshake, a pat on the back, a hug and a peck on the cheek are primal gestures and possibly the earliest forms of communication we developed as a species.

Yet these days, it seems the things we touch and talk to the most are our smartphones and laptops. To bridge this great divide, researchers are looking for ways to send nonverbal messages—gestures of touch—through the electronics we spend our days with and our fingers wrapped around.

At the UIST conference this week, researchers showed off one such candidate–a “ForcePhone” built at the Helsinki Institute of Information Technology and Nokia Research, which added a touchy-feely element to voice conversations. The prototypes were modified Nokia N900s. If a speaker holding one of a pair of these hacked N900s gave it a squeeze during a call, the listener’s handset would vibrate. These pressure messages, or “pressages” can be transmitted while on a regular call, or while on a Skype call.

I tracked down a device that Eve Hoggan, who presented the idea, had brought with her. The second device—its pair—was broken, and with only one phone at hand, I wasn’t able to hold a conversation. But when I squeezed the phone, it vibrated in my hand—just as its partner would in the hand of the person I was talking to. (The phones have been built to vibrate back as they’re squeezed, so the squeezer knows for sure it’s registered his or her gesture.)

The phone had a force-sensitive resistor taped to the side, which I pressed down on. The setup can pick up four different intensities of pressure. Each would translate to appropriately intense vibrations, Hoggan had explained in her talk. The resistors are connected to a sensor board that’s tucked into the microSD port of the phone.

Hoggan said that they wanted the phone to look as “normal” as possible so that testers would be encouraged to use it as naturally as they could. And test it they did. The group picked an initial test crew of six adults—three couples, really, who’d been in long-distance relationships for at least six months.

For one month, each of the six used the ForcePhone as their primary phone while the researchers recorded the duration of the phone calls to each other (not the content, of course), the frequency of calls, and the number of “pressages” that were sent during the call.

Perhaps not surprisingly, one couple adopted the tactile messages as their “virtual cuddle.” However, another tester found that during a phone argument, a good Level 4 squeeze of the handset conveyed annoyance very well–and for better or worse, it ticked off the partner too.

I’d worry that a phone vibrating at my face would get annoying pretty soon. But Hoggan and crew found that their ForcePhone testers pressed on through the month. In fact, she told me later, they found creative and unusual uses for the devices, but those were examples she wouldn’t reveal at a meeting of her professional peers. 

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Tagged: Computing, smartphones

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