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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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