Hacks to help you connect with loved ones you can’t meet

With measures to tackle coronavirus leaving so many people unable to meet family and friends, how can we make more meaningful connections when we’re on phone calls or using video apps? Experts offer their hacks.

Connect with your ears

At a time when we miss seeing friends, we can be seduced into having lots of video calls. But research suggests we might be better at detecting someone else’s emotions without visual clues.

Our hacks:

With expertise from psychology professor Christian van Nieuwerburgh, of the University of East London, and US-based neuroscientist David Eagleman.

Connect with your eyes

“Research shows that when we increase eye contact, others pay more attention to us,” says Prof Jeremy Bailenson, founding director of Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab.

But video calls present a challenge because on many devices the camera is positioned at the edge of the screen.

“We have to choose between looking someone in the eye and reading nonverbal signals, like a curious face,” says Prof Bailenson.

“For 30 years, videoconferencing companies have tried all sorts of devices to try and solve the eye-contact problem but no-one has nailed it.”

He also points to the “latency problem” – the time lag between an action and seeing it on screen, between your voice and your movements.

Typically a 10th to a quarter of a second, it also affects our ability to connect.

Bridget Waller, professor of evolutionary psychology at the University of Portsmouth, says reading expressions becomes especially challenging when we are on a group video chat, as we miss out on “gaze cues”.

“Of all primates, humans have the largest proportion of whites in our eyes, called sclera, associated with being able to detect who others are looking at,” she says.

“This skill is crucial to our species but can’t be used on a group video call with everyone looking at their screens.”

Our hacks:

With expertise from Prof Jeremy Bailenson.

Connecting without touch

Carey Jewitt, professor of technology and communication at University College London, believes the lack of touch in online conversations presents the biggest challenge.

“Touch is our first sense, we feel it in the womb and it’s key to giving and receiving information and to help us bond,” she says.

Research suggests emotion and touch are strongly related.

Though the UK as a whole is one of the most touch-averse societies, people still touch when they greet.

In a pub, for example, there is a warmth and comfort of being near people.

Though we may not touch, we are so close that we feel touched.

Prof Jewitt’s team is researching ways for people to virtually touch, by sending heat vibrations and pressure to another person through a wearable device.

In trials of jackets that inflate and give you a sense of being held when your partner sends a message, one participant said: “Even though it is a machine squeezing me, I think of you as hugging me.”

Our hacks:

With expertise from Prof Christian van Nieuwerburgh.

Illustrations by Emily Kasriel. Additional research by Kate Provornaya.

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