Love knows no bounds as tech embraces intimacy
If you met your Valentine's date on the internet, you are not the only one. According to the most recent data, people in the United States spend US$469.5 million annually on dating sites alone, making online personals the largest source of paid Web content.
Three decades ago, the creators of the internet envisioned hooking up the world. With more than 800 dating sites in operation today, we can safely say they have succeeded.
Now, the next phase of internet romance is coming online. Across the world, scientists, innovators, entrepreneurs and artists are researching and imagining new ways to marry technology and intimacy.
What they offer is a chance to feel more connected to others at a time when the rapid pace of technology has people feeling increasingly alone.
HugJackets translate embraces into an explosion of light and sound.
Take the developing field of haptics, which refers to technology that interfaces with users via the sense of touch. Computing today is about seeing a flat-screen monitor or hearing speakers, but imagine a new generation of peripherals that allow you to feel something.
In Singapore, Nanyang Technological University has developed a vibrating jacket that allows its wearers to 'send hugs' online.
Carnegie Mellon University researchers in the US have developed a similar technology: vibrating pillows that wirelessly connect to other pillows, allowing users to transmit hugs to loved ones over a great distance.
Others are eyeing new markets for the adult online entertainment industry, combining haptics, the internet and marital aids in a field referred to as 'teledildonics' (this being a family newspaper, we will simply refer you to Google or Wikipedia for more information).
Squeeze the 'My Beating Heart' pillow (above) and it feels just like a beating heart.
Some of these haptic technologies have already been commercialised. My Beating Heart (www.mybeatingheart.com) is a heart-shaped pillow designed to mimic a heartbeat.
Although seemingly simple in design - the US$120 device is not 'networked' with other beating hearts - its creators claim a computer-generated algorithm produces a unique heartbeat rhythm each time the pillow is activated.
'If you hug a Beating Heart, it might remind you of holding your favourite pet or cuddling a loved one,' the website promises.
F+R Hugs, a Bluetooth-enabled shirt embedded with sensors attempts to recreate the touch, warmth and heartbeat of the sender's hug.
For those who want true connectivity anywhere, any time, there is F+R Hugs, a Bluetooth-enabled shirt embedded with sensors that attempt to recreate the touch, skin warmth and heartbeat of a sender's hug. Hugs are transmitted via text message over a mobile phone network, then via Bluetooth to the shirt.
'You will be able to send hugs while you are on the move in the same way and to the same places you are able to make phone calls,' said its creator, CuteCircuit.
Also combining Bluetooth and mobile phone networks is Hugms (www.mobjects.net/hugms) , the invention of New York University student Mark Argo.
Users assign their Hugms to a mobile phone. After keying in a friend's phone number, squeezing the Hugm will generate a text message based on how long and strongly the device has been squeezed. This information is then transmitted to the friend's Hugm.
On his website, Mr Argo said he created the device as a part of a project that explores how mobile technology affects human interaction.
'How can we give somebody a hug if they're not near us? Often this impulse will drive us to call the loved one to say hello or send a quick text message, but does this capture our emotion?'
This pillow, designed by Philips Research, contains photonic textiles that can display an SMS from a loved one.
Outside of haptics, researchers are exploring the use of telephone networks to convey emotions in other ways. Pillow talk could soon take on new meaning if Philips Research brings its 'photonic textile fabrics' to market.
On the road and wanting to show a loved one that you care? Send an SMS and the text message will scroll across her pillow with the help of multicoloured light emitting diodes embedded in the fabric.
It is still in the early stages of development, but Philips hopes to partner with interior design and apparel brands.
Another project that explores fabrics, intimacy and technology is Studio 5050's HugJackets (www.5050ltd.com) . When a pair of HugJackets comes together as their wearers embrace, a pattern of light emitting diodes in each shirt is activated and a 'heartfelt' sound is heard.
The shirt is at once an artistic statement and a technology advancement: the two jackets, through their patterns, draw power from each other's battery source, symbolising the energy exchange between two lovers.
Use this gadget to tell everyone in Ohio you love her at www.onefreeminute.net.
Perhaps you are in love and you want to shout it out to the world. Then say it loud and say it clear at www.onefreeminute.net and everyone within a 150-foot radius of a megaphone in Ohio can hear your proclamations. Leave a one-minute message at phone numbers in the US, Britain, Brazil and Poland.
Or say it in writing. At g39 gallery in Cardiff, Britain, artist Stefhan Caddick explores the text-messaging phenomenon in the exhibition >OVER.
By sending an SMS to +44 7929 461727, mobile phone users can post their love messages to a re-commissioned construction sign outside g39's gallery. The display, which is just one piece of work in the >OVER exhibition, went live on Saturday and will run until March 18.
Some might opt to keep their text messages secret, especially mobile phone users with a cheating heart or another reason to keep their intimate words from being discovered. For these people there is SMS encryption technology from Australia's Bond Wireless.
Basically, the encrypted message can be unlocked only with a password known to the user. But take-up has been slow. Malaysian operator Maxis offered a Valentine's Day promotion last year but the response rate was poor, and no Hong Kong operator has adopted the technology.
Text your love messages to +44 7929461727 in Britain and they will be displayed on this recommissioned LED construction site sign outside g39 gallery.
Juliets will want their Romeos to whisper sweet nothings, but how will they know if his words are true? Try the 'Love Detector' from Nemesysco. The Israeli company started out developing lie-detection software for the government, using sophisticated software to ferret out falsehoods in a person's voice patterns.
Nemesysco later wrote algorithms that can analyse a person's voice to determine romantic interest. In Israel, the product is offered as a valued-added phone service called Mad Love. Users dial Mad Love and then surreptitiously call their significant other. After the phone conversation is over, Mad Love rings back with a voice report of its analysis.
For Hong Kong users, Nemesysco offers software that can be run on a computer or PDA (www.love-detector.com) . The software measures anticipation, embarrassment and concentration levels.