Virtual innovations to ease the distance in relationships

    Photo by Krislyn Placide / North by Northwestern

    Whether it was Odysseus and Penelope, separated by the Trojan War, or Abigail and John Adams, separated by John’s presidential duties, letters have kept couples connected despite tens of years and hundreds of miles. But what if these couples had simply been able to Skype at the end of a long day, or send a quick “I Luv U” text message. Better yet, what if they had been able to project each other’s silhouettes onto their beds?

    Had these couples been around today, their pages of letters might have instead been Mutsugoto drawings. Mutsugoto is an interactive device that allows a long-distance couple to project their silhouettes onto each other’s mattresses and write messages on each other’s bodies. This bedroom installation is meant to provide couples with an intimate customized experience, more like a boutique hotel than a commercial product, according to one of its creators, Stefan Agamanolis.

    Rather than all-purpose technologies such as email or text messaging, Mutsugoto allows for a more personal experience. “We realized communication technology was very generic, one size fits all. You talk to your lover with the same technology you use to talk to the pizza man,” Agamanolis says. “Your partner is not in a window on a computer screen or a phone but their body is actually projected.”

    Innovations in communication technology, such as Skype, Facebook and the more experimental Mutsugoto, have made couples more willing to try long-distance relationships. Those already in them are more able to stay connected.

    “The accessibility to technology will drive the abundance of long distance relationships into the future,” says Kate Brauer-Bell, a Cincinnati author who writes about long-distance relationships.

    Bell’s book, The Long-Distance Relationship Survival Guide: Secrets and Strategies from Successful Couples Who Have Gone the Distance, is inspired by her two-year, 450-mile romance with now-husband Chris Bell.

    As the wife of Mikhail Baryshnikov, Lisa Rinehart has experienced first hand the impact of technology throughout her 21-year relationship with the professional ballet dancer. “I was texting him messages to Manaus in the Amazon or Lima, Peru. It didn’t really matter where in the world he was, I could still communicate a tiny little thought,” Rinehart said.

    As the most technologically advanced generation yet, college students are greatly benefiting from the influx in communication technology. In a February 2010 study in the journal Communication Research, University of Kentucky communication professor Laura Stafford found that as many as half of college students are in long-distance relationships and up to 75 percent will be at some point.

    As the number of long-distance relationships has increased, so has the number of online resources for long-distance couples. Three years ago, Maine resident, Michelle Fraser and Massachusetts biotechnician, Frank Tringale created to help other long-distance couples like themselves. Home of the longest list of ideas and activities for long-distance couples, the site gives couples 98 technological tips on how to stay connected.

    “Anything that allows two people from a distance to interact as if they were together is the best thing you can have,” Tringale says. Number 87 on the list, allows users to simultaneously video chat and browse the web, while drawing on an interactive virtual white board.

    Fraser and Tringale’s favorite interactive activity and No. 1 on their list is watching movies together on Netflix, the world’s largest subscription service for movies and TV over the Internet, with over 16 million members.

    One of these members, Weinberg freshman, Zach Goldstein watches movies on the site with high school girlfriend, Taylor Clark, a marketing major at Washington University in St. Louis. “Recently we both stayed in one Friday night to watch a movie together. It felt like we were at home, on a date, just spending the night together,” Goldstein says.

    Along with Netflix, Goldstein and his girlfriend have found Skype to be the most important tool in maintaining a successful long-distance relationship during their first few months of college. Last month, Goldstein, who was upset about a grade on a recent math exam, rushed back to his room to Skype with his girlfriend.

    “Just being able to see your face when I’m upset makes me feel better,” says Goldstein to his girlfriend, after about 10 minutes of Skyping.

    Skype, which now has 560 million registered users according to SEC filings, and Facebook which has more than 500 million active users according to the Facebook pressroom, have become standard means of communication in today’s society.

    Less standard, yet nonetheless innovative is the virtual intimate object, created in 2004. The virtual intimate object consisted of a single red dot, installed on each partner’s desktop. When the user clicks on his or her own dot their partner’s dot brightens, letting them know their partner is thinking about them.

    “With this deliberately low bandwidth piece of communication, this one bit back and forth, they might get as much information as contained in a single text message, but it produced a lot higher feelings of intimacy,” says Joseph Kaye, the creator of the VIO.

    On average, couples used the VIO 35 times a day. Seven out of 10 couples said it made them feel closer to their partner at some point in the study, according to Kaye’s published research.

    As technology continues to make the world seemingly smaller and more tightly connected, long distance relationships are only going to become more common, according to Kaye.

    “Just 10 years ago things like Facebook hadn’t even been invented yet, so I can only imagine what kind of technology there is going to be 10 years from now,” Goldstein says. “Technology is going to increase the number of long distance relationships exponentially.”


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