"Flex-N-Feel is the first step to allowing long-distance couples to experience each other’s touch."
It's true: graduate student Samarth Singhal and his team have developed wearable technology that allows long-distance couples to "keep in touch" (quite literally).
Here he reflects on how grad school led him to this momentous achievement. If you want proof that grad school is anything but "blah," read on.
1. How does Flex-N-Feel support long-distance relationships?
Most long-distance couples rely heavily on video communication tools to support and maintain their relationship—yet these tools do not fully address the need to touch and feel one’s partner. Flex-N-Feel is the first step to allowing long-distance couples to experience each other’s touch and provide the next level of presence.
Flex-N-Feel consists of a pair of gloves. One of them is called the ‘Flex’ glove, which measures the bends of the fingers and sends these interactions wirelessly to the ‘Feel’ glove in the form of vibrotactile sensations. With Flex-N-Feel, couples can experience a sense of haptic stimuli when conversing with their remote partners over a phone or a Skype call.
Couples described Flex-N-Feel as adding an additional level of presence beyond what video or audio could provide.
2. What was your role with the Flex-N-Feel project?
I was the main designer and developer for Flex-N-Feel. I always had guidance from my supervisor, Carman Neustaedter, and course instructor, Alissa Antle. The teaching assistant for the course, Brendan Matkin, helped me with the hardware, while an undergraduate student, Yee Loong Ooi, helped me conduct the study and evaluate Flex-N-Feel with couples.
My own personal experiences, as well as stories of my friends who were in long-distance relationships at some point of their lives, motivated me to work on remote touch.
In Spring 2016, I took Alissa Antle’s course on Tangible Computing and thought of doing a fun project that would simulate touch over distances. This was when I started working on Flex-N-Feel as a fun course project, which slowly evolved into my research thesis for the SIAT graduate program.
3. How does it feel to have your project featured on the news?
It feels great to showcase my work to such a large audience with the help of media coverage. I would like to let all long-distance couples know that there is a technology for staying in (physical) touch with their partners.
About Graduate School
4. What motivated you to pursue graduate studies?
My passion and determination to learn more.
After working for three years in the industry, my learning curve became stagnant. At that point, I decided to pursue graduate studies.
After completing my undergraduate degree in Computer Science Engineering, I started working as a software engineer. After working as a mobile application developer for three years, I got the opportunity to work closely with the Communication Design Group on designing navigation and controls for improving interaction through gestures, acquiring basic level knowledge of user experience design for various mobile platforms. This motivated me to advance my skills and knowledge in the field of user experience and I decided to attend grad school.
5. What you are you working on in your graduate studies?
My research work investigates the design and use of technology to support everyday social computing and computer-supported collaboration for distance-separated people. I am most interested in providing a sense of immersion, presence, and connectedness over distance using tangible systems and designing new forms of video-mediated communication systems.
6. What advice would you give to those who are deciding if graduate school is the right for them?
I would encourage prospective graduate students to not worry so much about their career trajectory.
Instead, focus on the field of study that captures your interest and fuels your passion and effort throughout your career.
The best way to start is to reach out directly to past students and professors in the program that interests you. Interacting with these people will help you better understand their research and assess if you can imagine working with these people for the next few years of your life.
7. Why did you choose the School of Interactive Arts & Technology (SIAT) over other programs?
SIAT is a unique and rare school because of its interdisciplinary setting, bringing together people from various backgrounds such as arts, design and technology.
SIAT provides a creative and collaborative environment that encourages innovation and nurtures every student in a unique way.
I was really lucky to find a super-cool supervisor, Carman Neustaedter, who was working closely in my area of research. Interacting with Carman through Skype calls drew me even more to SIAT and its interdisciplinary culture.
When pursuing a research-based degree, it’s important to find the right fit with a supervisor because this is the only person you will be working closely with for the next two, three, four or five years. Finding the right supervisor will set you up for a super grad school experience.
8. What do you find most rewarding about your graduate studies?
Nothing compares to the "high" you feel from finally getting your prototype or experiment to work, or nailing a hard theoretical problem after months or years of efforts.
The most rewarding moment is when you get the opportunity to present your work at conferences in front of senior researchers from academia and industry.
9. What are your biggest challenges in graduate school?
The biggest challenge is learning how to effectively manage your time. It’s important to balance time between work and taking time off for yourself.
I like to maximize my workload on weekdays, mostly working from campus with my lab-mates. On weekends, I try to stay strictly away from work. I try to rejuvenate myself by playing Squash, going for a small run or simply hanging out with friends.
10. What are your future aspirations?
My future aspiration is to become an inventor of technology, designing and developing new modalities of communication technology to connect people over distance and enable them to share their daily lives together, providing a richer sense of presence between remote persons.
Want to join the SIAT Graduate Program?
Apply online by March 14, 2017.