How far away are we from the “Remote Hug”?

Recent technological advances have made the recent “COVID-19” lockdown slightly more bearable than it would have been if it had happened, for instance, 20 years ago. With the rise of social media people now have many ways that they can keep in touch with one another. Video conference platforms, such as Zoom or Microsoft Teams, have also seen a burst in popularity enabling people to attempt to recreate the face-to-face interaction that they otherwise would be missing out on. However, as good as these video calls are in going some way to meet our social needs, there is still one aspect that they cannot recreate – physical human interaction.

So how far away are we from the “Remote Hug”? Haptic technology which can create an experience of touch by applying forces, vibrations, or motions to the user would seem to be where a breakthrough in this area is most likely to arise. Successful haptic technology companies understand the role that IP, particularly patents, play in their success, and take filing patent applications seriously. Therefore, we have looked at filings in this area to see how far away we are from achieving this goal:

Synchronous interpersonal haptic communication system

Proof that work has been ongoing in this area for some time is evidenced by a patent application titled Synchronous interpersonal haptic communication system filed by researchers at the University of Ottawa back in 2009. They had recognised that “incorporation of the sense of touch in multimedia applications gives rise to far more exciting and appealing ways of supporting collaboration, co-presence, and togetherness in multimedia systems by enabling users to feel each other’s presence and the environments in which they are interacting”. However, they had identified that “one of the major challenges in haptic research is the communication of haptic data over a network”.

The system is described as being able to be implemented on a video conferencing application enabling “two (or more) remotely located users to see and hear as well as touch each other”. This involves the presence of users that are located in physically different places being captured and located in a common virtual space so that their interactions with each other can be computed. By determining if there is contact between the remote users, the contact information such as contact position and intensity is transferred to each user as haptic feedback.

Flexible wearable devices having embedded actuators providing motion stimulations

Moving away from looking at the methods of how haptic feedback may be transmitted, another patent application, filed in 2014 jointly by Cornell University (US) and Medingen Group LLP, focuses instead on a device that generates the touch sensation. One of the embodiments of the devices described in this application (Flexible wearable devices having embedded actuators providing motion stimulations) is a massage vest with an array of piezoelectric and electromagnetic actuators which create mechanical sensation onto the skin of the user wearing the vest. Further use is also described for mimicking the soothing effects of a mother’s touch to reduce stress in babies. Although the term “haptic” is not used in the application it is clear that the purpose is of a haptic nature.

This demonstrates that companies looking into haptic technology should consider all of the different aspects of their haptic system that are potentially patentable to provide full coverage of protection.

System for humans and pets to interact remotely

Although not directed to solving human to human interactions, the patent application “System for humans and pets to interact remotely”, filed by the National University of Singapore, aims at solving a similar problem but for pets. The application provides a system where an owner, located elsewhere from their pet, can interact remotely with them. This is achieved through the pet wearing a jacket having a series of vibrating motors. The user is able to send touch data to the jacket which reproduces the touching sensation via the vibrating motors. This principle would seem to be readily extendable to a jacket for another person to enable a hug to be transmitted remotely.

A technical problem?

On the theme of haptics and interacting with pets, a recent EPO Board of Appeal decision may provide us with insight into whether reproducing a hug using haptics would be a technical problem that the EPO would be ready to recognize as patentable. The application in this decision was related to a virtual pet that is described as being capable of providing haptic feedback to make the pet appear more lifelike. In section 18.3 of the decision, it is stated that “The board accepts as a technical problem in the context of virtual pets that of achieving the reliable and reproducible perception of physical interaction with the real pet.”

By analogy, it would be a reasonable assumption that using haptics to reproduce physical interaction in the form of a “remote hug” is likely to also be deemed a technical problem and therefore patentable at the EPO. This would be welcome news for companies looking to protect ideas in this space here in Europe. Further analysis on haptic related Board of Appeal decisions can be found in our whitepaper “Haptics at the EPO”.

Conclusion

Each of the ideas described above may help pave the way to the emergence soon of remote interaction becoming a thing of the present, and not just a thing of the future. Innovation will no doubt be sped up by the current need to social distance and people seeing the opportunities in this area. As evidenced by the patent applications identified above, companies in this area are already sensibly filing patent applications directed to a wide range of aspects of this technology. Filing patent applications is important as it allows those companies to ring-fence their ideas to  deter would-be competitors from copying them while they establish their place in the market. Furthermore, as patents have a monetary value, taking this pro-active approach to filing patent applications can add value to any company.

Here at GJE we have the knowledge and expertise to help you to protect your haptic technology innovations through patent protection. Think you have a haptics tech idea that may be patentable? Get in touch via computertech@gje.com to find out. By helping you protect your innovations we can give your invention an edge over the competitors in the market. If are interested in reading more about haptics and patents you may be interested to read our Whitepaper “Haptics Technology Strategy for Patents“.

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