Hong Kong's Chinese University has this week announced the development of a robot hand that will allow internet users the "sense of touch."
Professor Liu Yun-hui, of the university's department of mechanical and automation engineering, told Relaxnews that the device would be on sale by Christmas and would retail for "around US$100 (€74).''
"We have developed the robot hand so that it can be made available for everyone,'' he said. "We believe physical interaction is an important part of life and this will make that possible for internet users.''
To use the robot hands, each person involved in the communication would wear watch-like sensors, which detect the electronic signals generated by muscle contractions in the hand (a process called electromyography) and pass the instructions on through to the robotic device at the other end.
In this way the user guides the robot hand at the other end to do what movements he - or she - pleases.
The device is aimed at people who use instant messaging services such as MSN - or the Chinese equivalent, QQ, according to Professor Liu, and would be ideal for family members who live far from each other.
"We think it is a further advancement to keeping people connected,'' he said.
News came out of the Augmented Human International Conference - held in the French Alps ski resort of Megeve last week - that a Japanese husband and wife team were developing a "wearable'' robot suit - but Professor Liu claimed the robot hand was much more practical.
"But concentrating just on the hand - and not on the whole body - our device is more user friendly and easier for everyone,'' he said.
Robot hands currently used in research or industry retail for around HK$300,000 (28,000 euros), he said, but Professor Liu said his work had put people first.
"We might adapt it later but for now we are working on something that fulfils basic methods of touch,'' he said.
A patent application for the robot hand is now under way in the United States.