Social interaction is one of the essential factors that determine personal quality of life, which is also shown by the spread of social media. But the restrictions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic have also shown how important social contacts are – especially in connection with physical proximity – by forcibly withdrawing direct interaction. Although the communication gap caused by contact restrictions could be filled in part by video-based conferencing tools up to encounters in virtual worlds, increasing experience showed that "something is missing". Real encounters with physical closeness offer more interaction quality, which can hardly be justified by more communicated information alone. Obviously, physical and social closeness is a prerequisite for a high emotional quality of cooperation – even if this is not associated with any verbal information. The physical presence appeals to other senses and the multisensory experience creates an "embodied experience" that facilitates implicit and non-verbal communication and transmission of emotions.
The ToCaro research project is therefore dedicated to the question of how, given physical distance, the special quality of togetherness in physical proximity or physical contact can be supported to a certain extent by technology and interaction. The aim is to extend the digitally mediated interaction, which has so far been dominated by audio and video, with haptic or mechanical components. The idea is to convey the characteristic of physical closeness through direct bilateral, mechanical interaction. This is realized by transmitting forces that are applied by one interaction partner and can be experienced in real time and directly by mechanical actuators on the other side. These are, for example, mechanical movements of a physical object that convey moods like "mechanical animated emojis". The proximity-mediating technology is intended to allow a high variety of uses at different levels of interaction. This ranges from a low-threshold display of an "I'm thinking of you right now" through a binary signal (acoustic, optical, mechanical) to the abstract mediation of mutual moods to a direct acoustic or mechanical interaction supported by visually mediated communication.
HFC Human-Factors-Consult GmbH; Deutsches Forschungszentrum für Künstliche Intelligenz GmbH; C&S Computer & Software GmbH (C&S); Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg, Lehrstuhl für Fertigungsautomatisierung und Produktionssystematik (FAPS)