School of Interactive Arts & Technology, Technology & Society

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Four tips for enriching your long-distance connection with family and friends

April 09, 2020

By Diane Luckow

On a table in SFU professor Carman Neustaedter’s living room, a laptop displays an open video call. Gathered around the laptop are his three kids, aged 6, 11 and 13, who are watching their grandparents moving around their kitchen preparing dinner, and chatting with them.  Some days, grandma and grandpa drive a telepresence robot around Neustaedter’s home–it’s like Skype on wheels—which lets them see and hear what’s going on, while also moving around like one of the family.

It all seems quite natural to Neustaedter, a professor in SFU’s School of Interactive Arts and Technology who has spent the past two decades studying how we can use technology to improve our social and workplace collaborations over distance. He studies how technology like Skype works in job settings and during major life events like weddings, funerals, graduations and even childbirths.

Based on his research, Neustaedter offers four tips to help enrich long-distance social connections using videochat technologies like Skype and Facetime:

1. Move beyond just conversations.  Video calls can be far more than just talking. Try sharing activities with a remote family member or friend. For example, grandparents can read a book to their grandchildren or watch them play. Long distance partners can have a meal together. Parents and their adult children can cook together, with each family cooking at their own house, but talking to each other off and on throughout. Be creative. By sharing activities over video, you’ll begin to feel more like you are all actually together in the same location.

2. Keep the video call on.  Invite your remote family members over to your house for an afternoon or evening. Set up a laptop or tablet on a table or counter, initiate a video call and leave it on for several hours. Imagine it as though your remote family members are visiting you as you go about your routine. Talk with each other every now and then.

3. Life is messy, accept it. Don’t be concerned about how you look on video, or whether the camera is showing a messy room. Homes get messy and people don’t always look their best. Seeing people and homes in their normal state brings authenticity and stronger feelings of connection.

4. Create a special atmosphere.  When social distancing, we can easily miss out on celebrating the special events in our lives—the birthdays, the anniversaries, the family get-togethers. Re-create them over a video call, but don’t just do the ‘normal’.  Make it special by dressing up, decorating your own place, or changing the lighting. Have special meals at each location. Play games so you can talk and see each other at the same time.

Neustaedter and researchers in his lab also design future communication technologies. In 2017, for example, he and his students designed a pair of interconnected Flex-n-Feel gloves. When fingers ‘flexed’ in one glove, the actions were transmitted to a remote partner wearing the other. The glove’s tactile sensors allowed the wearers to ‘feel’ movements, such as touching the face, holding hands or giving a hug.

He has also experimented with using telepresence robots for a variety of relationships, including long-distance couples. In one study, Neustaedter’s PhD student who was living in California used a telepresence robot to improve her social connection with her partner at their Vancouver home. In addition to seeing each other and chatting, she used a telepresence robot to activate voice- controlled smart devices in the home. She could turn on the lights or the stereo system, and even help with cleaning—using a voice-activated vacuum.

Exciting as they are, however, these technology prototypes aren’t available today, when we are all self-isolating to ward off the COVID-19 virus. Still, Neustaedter says there are lots of ways to use everyday technologies like Skype and Facetime to make our new social isolation regime more bearable.

At work, his department has been using Slack, an instant messaging platform, to create a sense of camaraderie now that everyone is working from home. Colleagues use one Slack channel to post photos of their dogs and cats, and another to post photos of their home workstations, challenging the others to guess whose workstation it is. They also host virtual coffee breaks over Skype or Zoom.

At home, Neustaedter and his kids have experimented with playing games like Ultimate Werewolf with aunts, uncles, and cousins over Skype (it was difficult, he says) and they plan to try board games using FaceTime in the coming week.

Beyond the story:

SFU technology puts ‘touch’ into long-distance relationships

Visit Neustaedter’s Medium blog: https://medium.com/@carman_neustaedter

Follow him on Twitter:  @dr_carmster