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My day as a robot

May 12, 2014 | Telepresence Options


Story and images by Leon Neyfakh / The Boston Globe

Telepresence allows you to leap impossible distances, and even feel like a bit of a celebrity. But how "there" can you really feel when your body is 350 miles away?

TORONTO/NEW YORK -- The robot hand has been wrapped in artificial skin in order to make it feel more human, the professor from Japan is explaining. Hearing this, I want to take a quick, discreet glance around to see if everybody else in the room thinks it's as weird as I do, but I can't. Like them, I am getting to see this talk because I'm attending a massive conference on human-computer interaction, which has brought thousands from around the world to a convention center in Toronto. But unlike them, I'm not quite there.


Hideyuki Nakanishi explains that he and his team from Osaka University have built a "remote handshaking system" that gives the power of touch to people video-chatting with each other through a screen. By sliding your real hand into the fake one attached to your monitor, you can gauge the confidence in a prospective business partner's grip, feel your far-away girlfriend's fingers, or greet your father-in-law with a manly shake. The hand even maintains human body temperature, so when you touch it, it'll be warm, just like real flesh.

By the time Nakanishi shows a video of a Japanese pop idol shaking hands with the device on national television, the MIT researcher who brought me to the conference is losing his mind with delight. "SO CRAZY," he types into a chat window. Soon after, the talk draws to a close and everyone in the room starts enthusiastically clapping.

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