Long-distance couples can share a walk, watch movies together and give each other a massage using a pair of interconnected Flex-N-Feel gloves being developed by researchers at Simon Fraser University in Canada.

When fingers "flex" in one glove, the actions are transmitted to a remote partner wearing the other.

The glove's tactile sensors allow the wearer to "feel" the movements.

To capture the flex actions, the sensors are attached to a microcontroller.

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The sensors provide a value for each bend, and are transmitted to the "feel" glove using a Wi-Fi module.

The sensors are also placed on the palm side of the fingers to better feel the touch.

"Users can make intimate gestures such as touching the face, holding hands and giving a hug," says Associate Professor Carmen Neustaedter.

"The act of bending or flexing one's finger is a gentle and subtle way to mimic touch."

Testing of the prototype gloves continues.

While one set of gloves enables one-way remote touch between partners, Neustaedter says a second set could allow both to share touches at the same time.

Talk of the future

The butt of jokes less than 10 years ago, automatic speech recognition is on the verge of becoming the chief means of interacting with principal computing devices.

In anticipation of the age of voice-controlled electronics, MIT researchers have built a low-power chip for automatic speech recognition.

Whereas a cellphone running speech-recognition software might require about one watt of power, the new chip requires between 0.2 and 10 milliwatts. That's a power savings of 90 to 99 per cent, which could make voice control practical for relatively simple electronic devices.

"Speech input will become a natural interface for many wearable applications and intelligent devices," says Professor Anantha Chandrakasan, whose MIT group developed the new chip.

"The miniaturisation of these devices will require a different interface than touch or keyboard.

"It will be critical to embed the speech functionality locally to save system energy consumption compared to performing this operation in the cloud."

The new chip requires 90 to 99 percent less power. Photo / 123RF
The new chip requires 90 to 99 percent less power. Photo / 123RF

Scan the galaxy

Fast radio bursts (FRBs) are brief spurts of radio emission, lasting just one-thousandth of a second, whose origins are mysterious.

Fewer than two dozen have been identified in the past decade using giant radio telescopes such as the huge dish in Arecibo, Puerto Rico.

Only one has been pinpointed to originate from a galaxy about three billion light years away.

The other known FRBs seem to also come from distant galaxies but there is no obvious reason why an FRB wouldn't occur in our own Milky Way.

If it did, astronomers suggest that it would be "loud" enough for a global network of cellphones or small radio receivers to "hear" it.

"The search for nearby FRBs offers an opportunity for citizen scientists," says theorist Avi Loeb, of the Harvard-Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics.

Previous FRBs were detected at radio frequencies that match those used by cellphones, Wi-Fi and similar devices.

Consumers could potentially download a free smartphone app that would run in the background, monitoring appropriate frequencies and sending the data to a central processing facility.

An FRB in the Milky Way, in our own backyard, would wash over the entire planet at once.

If thousands of cellphones picked up a radio blip at nearly the same time, that would be a good sign that we've found a real event, scientists say.

Finding a Milky Way FRB might require some patience.

Scientists estimate that a new one might pop off in the Milky Way once every 30 to 1500 years.

However, some FRBs burst repeatedly, for decades or even centuries, so there might be one alive in the Milky Way today.

A network of detectors could be even more helpful in the search for a nearby FRB.

For less than $20 each, devices that plug into the USB port of a laptop or desktop computer can be purchased.

If thousands of such detectors were deployed around the world, finding a close FRB might just be a matter of time.