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Haptic hug vest makes emoticons so last century

I_FeelIM, aimed at adding emotion to virtual experiences, uses software to extract emotional meaning from text and pass it on to wearable haptic devices that simulate joy, fear, anger, and sadness.

The wearable HaptiHeart, part of the I_FeelIM system out of Japan, produces palpable heartbeat patterns to evoke sadness, anger, and fear and lend more emotional and physical realism to virtual experiences. Tachi Lab, video screenshot by Leslie Katz/CNET

Sure, it's great when that hot avatar gives you a hug in Second Life, but wouldn't it be even better if you could actually feel the embrace? Researchers from Japan are demonstrating a motorized haptic device that lets you experience real-time virtual hugs by physically reproducing the pressure felt on the chest and back when someone gives you a squeeze.

C'mon, give us a hug! Tachi Lab, video screenshot by Leslie Katz/CNET

Getting a hug that moves beyond the basic emoticon requires donning a kind of harness adorned with soft fabric hands that envelop the wearer in a warm faux embrace. But the HaptiHug is only one of the affective garments included in the I_FeelIM ("I feel therefore I am") system, which uses software to extract emotional meaning from written text and pass it on to one of a number of haptic devices that react accordingly.

The speaker-enabled HaptiHeart, for example, emits palpable heartbeat-like patterns to evoke sadness, anger, and fear. The vibrating HaptiButterfly and HaptiTickler, worn around the abdomen, are supposed to create feelings akin to nervous, joyous belly flutters. And the HaptiShiver and HaptiTemper are aimed at boosting fear emotions by, respectively, sending shivers up and down the wearer's spine by way of vibrating motors and producing spine chills via a fan blowing cool air.

"We are steeped in computer-mediated communication--SMS, e-mail, Twitter, instant messaging, 3D virtual worlds--but many people don't connect emotionally," Dzmitry Tsetserukou, an assistant professor at Toyohashi University of Technology and creator of the system told the Agence France-Presse. "I am looking to create a deep immersive experience, not just a vibration in your shirt triggered by an SMS. Emotion is what gives communication life."

Tsetserukou and his wife and colleague, Alena Neviarouskayam, presented the I_FeelIM over the weekend at the First Augmented Human International Conference, held in the French Alps.

We've seen haptic garments before--take, for example, this jacket by Philips Electronics meant to let moviegoers physically experience tension and fear related to action on-screen. But just how deeply can emotions be approximated with sensors, motors, and speakers?

Be sure to watch the below video, in which the man in the HaptiHug enjoys a little squeeze as his avatar declares in a cold robo-voice, "Oh, I really feel the warmth of your hug" and the female avatar intones, "Yes, it's so exciting, as if we met in a real world." Not the most emotionally charged exchange, to be sure, but possibly a promising step in the development of augmented reality.

Oh, and in case you're wondering, Tsetserukou said he decided to steer away from including in I_FeelIM haptic devices that simulate sexual sensations. No matter. As you might have guessed, there's already an app for that.