Long-distance relationships are tough. Bridging the gap just with texts, calls and Skype sessions doesn’t really work; for me, touching the other party is still quite essential for a relationship to pan out. Good news is, one inventor is relentlessly trying to build a machine for online kissing.
Professor Adrian Cheok is a pervasive computing teacher at City University London. I first met him in 2013, when I was single and he was working on various devices to transmit smell, taste, and touch through the internet. Among them, there was already a rudimental prototype of a long-distance kissing gadget.
Things have changed since then: the online-kissing prototype has developed into a usable—if not definitive—device, and Cheok has christened it “Kissinger” (not out of love for Machiavellian politicians, it turns out, but as a blend between “kiss” and “messenger”). As for me, I got a girlfriend, Lucy. For us—a British student and a Roman expat—the spectre of having to deal with distance, at a certain point, is omnipresent. That’s why I brought her out to Cheok’s laboratory to see what he had in store.
The Kissinger is a pink plastic-and-silicone rectangle with a hammer-shaped peg in the middle and a slot on the upper side to insert your smartphone.
“You have to plug in your mobile phone to see your partner in the screen while you kiss the machine,“ Cheok explained. “The device has pressure sensors, so the pressure is transmitted through the internet. Using two of them produces bidirectional kissing sensations.” It’s not the final version yet, Cheok warned me: Silicone lips and more sensors and moving parts are in the pipeline to add further realism to the experience. Lamentably, there are no plans to create digital saliva right now.
After the technical explanation, Lucy and I grabbed two sterilised devices. The first complication was that the two Kissingers weren’t properly connected. One of Cheok’s assistants had to work on his computer to send the devices some typical kissing sensations — but it wasn’t actually a bidirectional. Then I started smooching the thing, licking the hammer-like protuberance which I supposed to be a simulacrum of a tongue.
“That’s actually the lips,” Cheok informed me with a gentle tone, while his collaborators roared in amusement. Once we established the anatomical basics, we rebooted the kissing operations.
“It was like a more intense MSN Messenger buzz … Or, like, kissing a vibrator.”
There was definitely something new about the experience, but it was psychological. The fact that Lucy and I were looking at each other over videocall (granted, we were actually like three meters apart), waiting to kiss each other was refreshing. Suddenly, distance looked like a defeatable enemy—if only partially. As for the actual kissing, there’s still room for improvement.
The sensation was one of mild vibration, which intermittently resembled the spasms of a 1930s-style dry kiss. Also, what appeared on the phone screen was not really what one would see during a kiss. “All I see is your forehead,” Lucy shouted at some point. I opened my eyes, and shouted back: “Me too.” On the plus side, the Kissinger’s material didn’t feel too fake to the touch: It wasn’t like kissing real skin, but it wasn’t like rubbing your mouth on a plastic bucket either.
Lucy was quite unimpressed. “It was like a more intense MSN Messenger buzz,” she said after we left Cheok’s lab. “Or, like, kissing a vibrator. I can see this develop into an interactive dildo at some point.” (Not too far-fetched an idea, given Cheok’s interest in the field of robotic love and sex, including teledildonics.)
All in all, kisses are still best given in person. But with time, objects like the Kissinger (or teledildos, for that matter) might eventually catch up with old-style biological snuggling. Then, only then, long-distance relationships might look less scary. Maybe.
This story is part of Motherboard’s Sex Ed Week, a series of sex-focused science and technology stories. Check out more stories here: http://motherboard.tv/sex-ed