Scientists from Imperial College London and two Japanese institutions explored whether physical interaction improved the way people performed in a computer-based task where they were using a joystick-like device. (Agencies)
They were connected by a virtual elastic band to the same type of device operated by another person, who was hidden from view.
Most of the participants were unaware that they were working with a partner, but in spite of this they subconsciously used information transmitted through their partner's touch to enhance their performance.
Participants achieved noticeably better results in the task when working with a partner than they did working on their own.
The researchers are particularly interested in how their findings could help people performing exercises for rehabilitation, for example when recovering from stroke.
Robots are increasingly used for such rehabilitation and physiotherapy and the researchers believe that these robots would be more effective if they could react to patients through touch in the same way that people do.
The research could also help people practising sports or other physical activities.
"They say it takes two to tango and it seems that for physical tasks, practicing with a partner really does improve performance," said Dr Etienne Burdet, co-author of the study from the Department of Bioengineering at Imperial College London.
"Our study is helping us to understand how touch plays a vital and very subtle role in helping people to transmit information to one another. This was the case in our study even when people couldn't see their partner or feel their partner's skin," Burdet said.
In the study, the researchers discovered that where one person was physically connected to a partner when learning a task, they consistently improved their performance regardless of how well their partner performed.
Even an intermittent physical connection between partners was found by the researchers to help individuals to learn the task better than subjects who practiced the task alone for the same duration.
The team also found that when practicing a task, the improvement in performance was most prominent when the partners were at a similar level, and that interacting with peers was more beneficial than working with an expert.
Improvements were most noticeable when the individual was practicing with another human and not a robot, researchers said.
Scientists from Imperial College London and two Japanese institutions explored whether physical interaction improved the way people performed in a computer-based task where they were using a joystick-like device.