There's a place where you can hug a stranger and never get sick

From video cuddle sessions to immersive VR experiences, people are finding the next best thing to in-person affection.

The isolation of quarantine has shone a blistering light on the importance of physical connections. Though sexual experiences have dominated the conversation, especially with separated couples seeking toys to bridge the gap while porn performers and exotic dancers flock to camming, the issue of intimacy is much more nuanced — and a far greater casualty of social distancing.

Virtual reality spaces have become hotspots for hug requests, particularly in Roblox and VRChat, two gaming platforms that blur the lines between creator and player. Both companies declined interview requests for this story.

Users can connect with strangers or create private environments just to hang out with their friends and loved ones. In games like Sked’s Playground and VR Hands on Roblox, players with VR headsets hover above a platform with giant floating heads and hands. Desktop users, on the other hand, have small, flightless avatars with completely incorporated bodies.

Those few seconds felt electrifying.

Being a giant has its perks, like being able to hug other giants and even tiny people, so I was skeptical about the benefits for a computer-only player who might not have, or be able to afford, an Oculus Rift headset. But during my first trip to Sked’s Playground, an adorable green giant scooped me up in its blocky grasp and, surprisingly, those few seconds felt as electrifying as accidentally grazing a cashier’s hand a couple of months ago.

An impromptu, deadly rollercoaster ride.Input

In VR Hands, the vibe feels more like avatars are playthings for the VR gods. After being dropped off on a floating platform, I hopped into a rollercoaster car which was then flown and flipped around by a VR player. Many of these players simply toss the doll-like avatars in the air, but some are more malicious and will flick you off the platform — despite warning bulletins to “be nice” or face banishment. Hugs do spark joy here, but not as much as being thrown straight up toward the sky, which achieves a more drawn-out cuteness compared to little hops you can make in similarly emotive games like Animal Crossing.

Roblox skews towards Gen Z players, particularly appealing to tweens and teens, while VRChat leans older and less wholesome. Though hugs are definitely still easy to come by in VRChat, different environments and tools like bHaptics’s VR vest invite more explicit reactions. As a result, the haptic-feedback vest only has modified compatibility with this virtual world, according to Jennifer Lee, bHaptics’ Director of Business Development.

“I'm kind of worried about the ethical issues because you know, it's easier to approach somebody,” Lee says, while acknowledging the vest is generally used in a PG way. “They think it's virtual, not real, so they can do anything they want [but it] shouldn't be sexual harassment.”

YouTuber iamLucid took the vest, the Tactot, for a spin in VRChat and while many were simply in awe of the wearable itself, the video quickly gets NSFW. The Tactot has 40 sensors equally divided on the front and back that provide more than 300 haptic feedback variations. For games that aren’t fully integrated to utilize the vest’s haptic patterns, the vest takes the feeling of standing in front of concert speakers and the directionality of the doppler effect to transform audio into physical feedback.

What’s the catch for this surreal experience? The vest costs nearly as much as the “bargain” headset, Oculus Quest. As bHaptics expands compatibility to entice PC gamers, a less expensive version with slightly fewer sensors will be available this fall. bHaptics isn’t alone in the VR vest world, but it’s miles away from competitors with the sheer amount of sensors and official game integrations.

Virtual cuddling

For those who want a more realistic connection, especially with a consent-based approach, cuddling has found its way to video chats. Professional cuddling as we know it was pioneered by the 16-year-old organization Cuddle Party. Its workshops facilitate open communication about consent and boundaries through non-sexual touch while expanding the definition of intimacy.

Cuddle Party is a revered source of inspiration for Madelon Guinazzo of Cuddlist and Jean Franzblau of Cuddle Sanctuary. They started their cuddle journeys around the same time and went on to found organizations where they also conduct sessions.

”There really is no substitute for the in-person, physical touch.”

Guinazzo, 52, was surprised by the impact a video session can have, and with the exception of touch, certain aspects remain unchanged. Every session opens with a verbal affirmation of each person’s boundaries, and the client leads the direction from there. Though each session is different, she finds methods like verbal cuddling and guided meditations are well-received.

“If you have imagination or some level of sense experience, you can imagine in your head what it's like,” says Larry K., 62, a Cuddlist client who thinks that, with or without experience specifically with a professional cuddler, most people can get a boost from having platonic touch described to them.

Guinazzo, Larry, and a couple of other Cuddlist clients, as well as Franzblau all agree that the video sessions just aren’t the same, but they think there’s still value to it.

“[It’s] amazing to me that the nervous system and the brain is so sophisticated, even through eye-gazing via a camera,” Guinazzo says, pleasantly intrigued by a comparison to personal attention/eye-contact heavy ASMR videos. “There really is no substitute for the in-person, physical touch — it's not the same thing. There's definitely a benefit to that that doesn't feel safe or available right now.”

Franzblau, 49, was slower to come around to video sessions. A month into quarantine, she tried it out, and (like Guinazzo) quickly crafted new training materials for her cuddlers. Cuddle Sanctuary still offers group events over video in addition to individual ones on a free/sliding scale basis. Pre-pandemic regulars have mainly stuck around, Franzblau says a colleague noticed, but getting new clients has proven difficult.

For Guinazzo, her pre-pandemic clients only pay half her usual rate while new clients pay full price, but other Cuddlists have their own policies. Cuddlist clients Ron, 35, and Joe, 51, admitted their openness to trying virtual sessions was rooted in already having the experience of an in-person session.

“I want to open people's minds... they can get their oxytocin boost virtually.”

“If I'm committed to helping people connect then I need to be flexible and I need to be innovative, just do my best with the resources I have,” says Franzblau, who is trying to reach those starved of touch before they hit a breaking point and “say fuck it … and jump on Tinder.”

Franzblau is rolling out a workshop to help people expand what she calls a "germacule" and what others have referred to as a "quarantine pod." Cuddle Sanctuary is still offering virtual sessions, but she wanted to create resources to help people establish a cuddle buddy.

Franzblau, who also has a background in sex education, is well-versed in the layers of consent and this workshop is emblematic of that. She underscores that anyone considering getting a cuddle buddy needs to “get real with themselves,” be comfortable having hard conversations, and be a “guardian of trust.” If they’re not prepared to set and respect risk tolerance boundaries, they’re not ready to open their germacule.

"The whole title makes you think literally cuddling physically with a person," says Franzblau, "but also I do want to open people's minds [so] that they can get their oxytocin boost virtually."