It can be tough to stay connected over long distances. Yes, there’s phone calls, texting, Facebook, Twitter, IM, video chatting and everything else. But what if you could give virtual hugs to each other using battery-powered, Internet-enabled pillows?

Credit: Carnegie Mellon research paper, 2003.

Microsoft just patented that … and more.

The company has been awarded a patent on “Force-feedback within telepresence” — the idea of using interactive, connected devices to bring physical interactions to long-distance communications. For example, the patent says, “Hugs, hand-shakes, grabbing documents, writing on a whiteboard, and the like can be detected so a specific feedback force response is implemented.”

Force feedback is common in video game controllers these days, and this idea of extending it to long-distance interactions isn’t new. For example, researchers from Carnegie Mellon in 2003 presented a paper (PDF) called “The Hug: An Exploration of Robotic Form For Intimate Communication.” Here is one of the scenarios they described, referencing the picture above.

“Mary lives in Chicago and her granddaughter, Chrissy, lives in Pittsburgh. They use The Hug to stay connected. One evening while sitting in her living room, Mary hears her, Hug’s melody and sees a warm glow in its belly, signalling that someone is sending her a hug. She picks up her Hug, squeezes its left paw and says “Hello.” She hears her granddaughter Chrissy respond “Hello Grandma.” As Mary and Chrissy chat, Mary strokes the back of her Hug, causing Chrissy’s Hug to vibrate softly (Figure 2). As time passes, their Hugs begin to slowly warm, radiating a comfortable heat. Once they are done chatting, Mary says goodbye, and squeezes her Hug’s right paw. The Hug plays another melody and glows, signalling that this hug has ended.”

The wording of Microsoft’s patent isn’t anywhere near that warm and cuddly, but it covers that type of thing and more. For example, the patent describes a handshake scenario: If someone on one end of the line shakes a device forcefully, that shake is felt with more force by the person holding a counterpart device on the other end of the line.

But it’s not just vibration or a simple force. Microsoft says the feedback could include “friction, haptic, tactile, electric feedback, electrical stimulation, three-dimensional feedback, vibration, shaking, physical resistance, temperature change, motion, noise, pressure, texture, a motion, a replication of touching, any combination thereof, and/or any other suitable feedback communicated via a device.”

Yes, some of you, I know where your minds are going at this point. For the record, Microsoft’s patent doesn’t go there, at least not explicitly. The paragraph above is about as smutty as patent lawyers get.

The most interesting application here is probably Skype, which Microsoft now owns. I’m not at all convinced that these virtual hugs would ever catch on, but who knows, maybe this could be a way for Skype to expand its business somehow.

In any event, Microsoft now has what seems to be a broad patent covering this area of “telepresence force feedback.” Originally submitted for consideration in 2009, the patent (8,332,755) was approved by the USPTO on Dec. 11.

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  • Guest

    Microsoft has finally lost their mind.

  • Cristian Martinez

    Crazy…but badass… Microsoft is badass for taking things to the next level and taking risks with them.

  • John with Widerview

    These kind of patents are the best methode of telling that the technology industry is lacking of new developments, but preparing for financial lawsuits to make future profits. I can only describe it as the ‘Apple way’ of doing business. It’s probably a kind of American-style business for protectionism. Kill your competition by lawsuits.

  • Mike 0rtloff

    Yikes – we’re gonna trust the ppl who brought ya ME, Vista and Windows 1.0 with machinery that HUGS you? Oh man, the lawsuits write themselves…

  • Guest

    Congrats to Microsoft! I think these enhancements will work well in the special version of Skype to be released next year with Xbox TV.

  • anon

    There was something like this over 15 years ago. It never caught on.

  • asok1421

    Oh, for fuck’s sake. Anyone ever hear of virtual reality gloves about 20 years ago?

  • mike

    This is neither novel or non-obvious and like the article states it is based on prior art.

    It is way past time for the patent system to be overhauled and for all these frivolous patents to be invalidated.

    • Trevahaha

      It’s a patent on HOW not WHAT. The idea doesn’t have to be novel, just the method of implementation.

  • sega

    i know that someone will think about ***

  • Amir Karniel

    This is indeed the next thing in telepresence, see, e.g., the Turing-like Handshake test,

  • Rob McCrea

    I think many people are missing that the virtual kissing devices are OLD NEWS, even being featured on The Big Bang Theory. It was common sense then to replace your tongue with your genitals, at least on one end.

  • NeverGetItWet

    interesting my post referencing a product as prior art keeps getting deleted… nice job moderators…..

    • Guest

      Talk to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Bitching to a few bored men never solved any problem.

    • Todd Bishop

      Your comment was getting caught in the Disqus spam filter because of the link. I found the original and approved it. Thanks.

  • Lee Felsenstein

    In 1977 I was an editor at the short-lived ROM Magazine, in which an article was published titled “Telegrasping at Midnight” which described such a system, though it didn’t specify a computer’s involvement. I’ll be digging out my collection of ROMs (it lasted a year – Erik Sandberg-Diment was the publisher and editor and it got sold to
    Creative Computing which in turn got sold to Ziff-Davis). If I find it I’ll post an item on Facebook describing it as prior art to this patent. I just checked Google and found that the word “telegrasping”is used in recent articles in robotics.

  • allah_speaking

    Broken patent system – check… all that needs to be said really…

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