Technology is often painted as an isolating inhibitor to real human connection. But one of the most notable features of the Apple Watch, released with fanfare on Tuesday, may have the opposite effect.
The watch's "virtual touch" program allows users to feel one another's heartbeats remotely and in real time, which may be the first step toward using technology to address the disconnect it causes in our everyday lives. While research indeed suggests that our lack of face time (rather than FaceTime) may be contributing to a generation that scores lower for empathy, a 2011 study at the Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands found that hearing someone's heartbeat during a conversation may provide the same feelings of intimacy as looking them squarely in the eye.
What would a world look like in which we could feel "virtual touches" of our loved ones and assorted contacts? If the Dutch study is to be believed, it may play a role in reducing feelings of loneliness.
"Despite a variety of new communication technologies, loneliness is prevalent in Western countries. Boosting emotional communication through intimate connections has the potential to reduce loneliness," the paper's researchers wrote in a prescient introduction. "New technologies might exploit biosignals as intimate emotional cues because of their strong relationship to emotions."
The study found that sensing the biosignal of a companion's heartbeat through a virtual reality system made participants feel as connected to them as if they had maintained eye contact. Eye contact is the most primary and primal of human connections -- and it's on the decline as technology continues to dominate the way we communicate, according to a recent Wall Street Journal article.
Of course, no one has completed a study using the Apple Watch's exact technology, so the Eindhoven research should be taken with a massive grain of salt. While the jury's still out, why not skip the middleman and just go for real-life eye contact?