ForcePhone Helps Keep in Touch – Literally


“Phone Lasered” by Daniel Ly was used under a Creative Commons license and is available at

If the lines awaiting the latest iPhone that form outside Apple Stores are any indicator, people all over the world eagerly await the next big thing in cell phone technology.

Researchers in cell phone technology are challenged to innovate and pave the way for the latest major development in how people communicate with each other every day.

A commercially available, mobile prototype called ForcePhone takes on that challenge as it leads communication to a new, more personal level. ForcePhone was created through research partially funded by the Nokia Research Center in Finland and Tekes collaboration project HEI.

Using Pressure for Personalization

ForcePhone is a synchronous haptic communication system – a network or device that uses the sense of touch, or haptics, to improve the communication experience between two people. During phone calls using ForcePhone, callers can squeeze the side of the device and send vibrations, or vibrotactile messages, to the receiving device. These vibrotactile messages are called pressages and are registered at four levels of intensity - a level one vibration being the lightest and a level four being the most intense.

The idea is to allow users to express greetings, presence and emotions nonverbally.

“Pressure and tactile techniques have been explored in tangible interfaces for remote communication on dedicated devices,” said Dr. Eve Hoggan of the Helsinki Institute for Information Technology, “but until now, these techniques have not been implemented on mobile devices or used during live phone calls.”

Hoggan and her colleagues conducted the study and produced ForcePhone and the resulting research paper, “Pressages: Augmenting Phone Calls with Non-Verbal Messages."

Based on the study results, Hoggan said the study’s participants used the vibrotactile messages in three main ways: to emphasize speech, to express affection and presence, and to playfully surprise one another.

In the spirit of play, many reviews of ForcePhone, such as the one released by MIT Technology Review, are likening this kind of interaction to someone sending a hug.

Making Room for Tactile Communication

According to the results of the study, the average participant’s phone call lasted 4 minutes and 43 seconds. The average number of pressages sent – every call involved the use of pressages – was 15.56, or about one pressage every 18 seconds.

The initial test group consisted of six adults – three couples who had been in long-distance relationships for at least six months. Each of the six was given a ForcePhone to use as his or her primary phone for one month. The researchers recorded the duration of the phone calls, the frequency of the calls and the number of pressages sent during each call. The content of these calls was not recorded.

Participants said they had to adapt their communication style to make use of the pressure messages. They tended to pause after sending a pressage to “make space for it in the conversation.”

Some participants came up with creative uses for the presages. One couple used the vibrations to represent a “virtual cuddle.” Another used Level 4 squeezes to convey annoyance during arguments.

Nidhi Subbaramen, a freelance writer for MIT Technology Review, met with Hoggan at the 2012 Annual ACM Symposium on User Interface Software and Technology in Boston, Mass., where ForcePhone was presented. According to Subbaramen’s article, the device also vibrates on the user’s end when the user squeezes it. This lets a user know that his or her pressage has been registered and sent to the receiver.

A Psychological Game-Changer

The question of mobile devices’ effect on communication and social ability is often raised. To some, text messaging instead of phone calls and phone calls instead of meeting in person have made people impersonal in daily communication.

However, the use of haptic communication like that of ForcePhone could be the key to rehumanizing the mobile conversation.

According to the 2012 study “Haptic Communications” by researchers from IEEE, the world’s largest professional association for the advancement of technology, audiovisual information gives users a satisfactory impression of being involved in a remote environment, but physical interaction and manipulation is not made possible.

“True immersion into a distant environment and efficient distributed collaboration require the ability to physically interact with remote objects and to literally get in touch with other people,” according to the study.

This study focused on the level of communication and interaction achieved when elements of audio, visual and haptic elements were combined.

The main argument for using haptic communications in the study is that haptics could vastly improve human-to-human and even human-to-machine interactions. Such communications systems are not meant to replace traditional methods of interaction but rather to “advance in our quest for truly immersive communication,” especially over long distances.

Similarly, a 2011 study by Hae Youn Joung and Ellen Yi-Luen Do of the Georgia Institute of Technology said touch, being central to emotional communication, is the simplest of all the sense and is capable of easily communicating and eliciting emotions.

“Tactile gestures exhibit the natural capability and tendency of humans to move their hands to express and communicate emotions,” according to the study. “In particular, in emotional communication, tactile hand gestures arouse human emotions through touch.”

To reach the study’s goals, the researchers focused on the use of hand gestures in human interaction. But considering the long-distance nature of phone calls, the vibrotactile messages used with ForcePhone can be likened to the typical use of gestures to communicate specific emotions.

For example, imagine giving ForcePhone a hard, level 4 squeeze rather than gesturing aggressively by jabbing a finger at someone or shaking your fist.

According to the study, researchers today are developing more and more sensory experiences, or modalities, to enable a higher range of online and mobile communication through interactive applications.

An article published in IEEE Signal Processing Magazine in 2011 discusses the concept of immersive communication through this idea of using more interactive, sensory aspects in telecommunication.

“We are at the onset of a revolution in telecommunication, from delivery of information to full-dimensional collaboration,” according to the article. “In fact, there is an expectation of change of mode in telecommunication, from telephony and telepresence, towards the ultimate goal of immersive communication (IC), in which users communicate, interact, and collaborate over a distance with immersive and lifelike experiences.”

What’s Next?

This level of immersive communication goes even beyond what ForcePhone accomplishes with the use of pressages.

Immersive communication could mean a massive change in the way the world does business, makes connections and maintains relationships of all kinds from every corner of the world.

With the help of countless applications, phones that support social media and innovations like ForcePhone that bring us that much closer to one another, the way we communicate is constantly changing.

Consumers keep the demand for new ideas and devices high, encouraging researchers and innovators everywhere to keep the strange, the unusual, and the unique coming at a dizzying pace.

With imaginations running wild, the question “What’s next?” opens a million doors to the future of technology. Communication will never be the same.

This science feature article was written under the guidance of JYI Science Writing Mentor Robert Aboukhalil.

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