It's 2025 and your boyfriend has been temporarily posted to Tokyo, while you're still stuck in the Boston-Atlanta Metropolitan Axis. How will you keep in touch? Well, maybe hug shirts and larger-than-life videoconferencing will help you out.
As communication technology has improved over time, it's helped long-distance couples stay in real-time contact and enjoy conversations almost as if they were sitting face to face. There aren't good studies on whether more people maintain long-distance romantic relationships now than in the past, said Linda Young, a relationship counselor and board member of the Council on Contemporary Families, a nonpartisan, nonprofit group that aims to educate the public about family and relationship science. Young's anecdotal experience, however, is that there are more separated lovers now. "The impression I get is that yes, it's true," she told InnovationNewsDaily.
The possible increase in the number of far-flung lovers isn't just a result of better tech, she said, but also of the poor economy in the U.S. "Because of job opportunities or lack of opportunities, people are going where they have to go," she explained.
For now, these people will have to rely on phone calls, email and video calls, but in the future, they can look forward to technologies that will involve one or two more of the five senses or even virtual worlds of their own.
Television screens have been growing bigger and sharper since the 1990s. Now, with the Apple iTV, they're getting more connected, too. Even mobile devices can have fairly large displays, such as those on tablets. "It's going to be seamless to have a really large view of your spouse and the room they're sitting in," Young said. She has noticed many long-distance couples understandably prefer video chat programs such as FaceTime and Skype over telephone or email, so the future's big-screen views may be popular with traveling and long-distance partners.
Call in a hug
Even the largest video displays are still missing one physical sense that is very important to love: touch. Both sexual and non-sexual physical touch help couples bond, not least by releasing a social chemical called oxytocin in the brain, Young said.
In 2006, Time magazine called the Bluetooth-enabled "hug shirt" one of the best inventions of the year. The shirt is embedded with devices that can sense and recreate the strength, warmth and heartbeat of someone's embrace. If hugger and huggee both wear the shirts, which are linked to their cellphones, they can send touches to one another's torsos and arms, to any location their phones could normally make calls. If one party doesn't own a hug shirt, he or she can still send a hug using software called HugMe.
Six years later, the shirt is still listed as "coming soon" on the website of its inventors, CuteCircuit. Though other researchers have since created jackets with tactile feedback for video games and movies, the shared-touch shirt idea seems to have stalled for now.
"When it comes to something like putting on a suit that has sensors so your entire body can be activated by a remote person at a keyboard," Young said, "the number of people who are desiring that kind of touch experience is pretty low."
She doesn't see a big market for touch clothing, except for "depersonalized" experiences such as paid webcam sex. It seems too strange coming from a beloved partner, she said. "Touch is really important, but second-degree touch is very different from first-degree touch."
Yet webcams and phones give people second-degree sights and sounds. Why is touch different? Phones and photographs have existed for a long time, Young said, so people are familiar with the sensations.
Perhaps with time, people will get used to touch technology as well.
In their own little world
Most of the long-distance couples Young works with keep in touch by phone or with video calls, but there is a "subset of the population," she said, who use avatars in virtual-world games such as Second Life to keep things "spicy." In akin technology, some online services, such as OmniDate and VirtualDateSpace, let users create avatars and go on virtual dates.
For those who aren't interested in avatar worlds, there are websites (Tokii) and smartphone apps (IceBreak, Between) that have quizzes, games, messaging and photo-sharing just for two. Young recommends them for long-distance couples who prefer doing things together over sitting and talking.
She has seen these games work well with long-distance lovers, but she's also run into couples in which one partner enjoys the new game much more than the other. In that sense, it's just like joining the local bowling league together or picking up community gardening as a pair. "Like anything else, like some new hobby, you have to do something that fits both dispositions," Young said.
With better video screens, improving tactile technology and more online activities and games, separated couples in the future can keep in close touch. There's no app to reproduce the dirty details of day-to-day living, however—snoring, nose-picking, arguments both petty and important. Couples who plan eventually to live together should keep that in mind, Young said. "You can maintain an idealized version of yourself through your technology." Long-distance relationships can have "that bubble quality, that shinier-than-real-life quality."
All communication technologies engage the imagination in some way, to fill in the inevitable gap with real life. People should expect a potentially rough adjustment period when they get back together again, Young said. "Now all the truths are coming out."
This story was provided by InnovationNewsDaily, a sister site to Live Science. You can follow InnovationNewsDaily staff writer Francie Diep on Twitter @franciediep. Follow InnovationNewsDaily on Twitter @News_Innovation, or on Facebook.