2018: The Year of Haptics? (Part I of II)

David Parisi
Associate Professor of Emerging Media, College of Charleston

Based on popular press accounts, 2018 has been the year when haptics technology finally hit it big: by featuring haptics tech prominently in its depiction of a fully embodied virtual reality, Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One—an adaption of Ernst Cline’s 2011 novel of the same title—sparked a renewed cultural interest in the possibilities of virtualizing touch. The haptic bodysuits worn by characters in the film allowed them to feel a range of sensations in the computer-generated world of the Oasis (the film’s trailer featured a woman running her fingers running across his chest in VR, with his bodysuit lighting up to indicate points of contact, as she asked “can you feel this?). It was not the first spectacular depiction of digital touch in a big-budget science fiction film—for example, all the way back in 1992, Brent Leonard’s psychedelic The Lawnmower Man portrayed two characters clad in neoprene bodysuits engaging in virtual intercourse, with their liquid bodies melting into each other. But, unlike previous films, Ready Player One was released at a moment when virtual reality had recently passed from being the stuff of science fiction to being something you could find on the shelves at Best Buy and Target. These long-anticipated devices, however, still work primarily through vision and hearing, preserving the audiovisual legacy of twentieth century media. Ready Player One offers a seductive image of a VR more visceral and engaging than what’s currently on hand—one that disrupts rather than enshrines audiovisuality by projecting the body fully into a computational simulation. Even before the film’s March release, it inspired a spate of articles comparing the touch technology available in 2045 to current-generation interfaces.

Those who went looking for evidence of haptics’ imminent domestication found it to be in abundant supply. A new virtual reality glove from the company HaptX wowed attendees at the Sundance Film Festival, with the product demo allowing those who donned the glove to feel the feet of a tiny fox as it pranced across their palm. The Teslasuit—an actuator-loaded, full-body haptic suit that uses a combination of vibration, electricity, temperature, and motion capture systems to create the feeling of embodied presence in virtual worlds—continued to tease an anxious tech press with rumors of an impending commercial release. A Wired magazine article raised eyebrows by (incorrectly) describing a range of new haptics devices designed to inflict pain on their users. Ultrahaptics, with its touchless feedback system that creates midair ‘haptic holograms,’ demonstrated potential applications for their product, including in-dash entertainment interfaces for automobiles, digital signage, medicine, and gaming. Just before Ready Player One’s release in March, Microsoft—which has dabbled in haptics since its work with force feedback joysticks in the 1990s—announced four experimental haptic interfaces that grew out of the Haptics Controllers Project it began in the summer of 2017. Immersion Corporation—a company so synonymous with digital touch that its tagline announces “Immersion: We Are Haptics”—pushed a set of ongoing initiatives, including one aimed at incorporating touch feedback in ads on mobile devices (using haptics to enhance an ad for Arby’s, for example). The Dutch teledildonics firm Kiiroo rebranded to become Feel Robotics, in an effort to expand the company’s efforts beyond the limited but lucrative sphere of sex tech. Buoyed by the renewed interest in virtual reality, venture capital poured into haptics startups (as Sarah Needleman described), with the projected growth of the haptics industry legitimating these investments. So far in 2018, each month feels like it’s brought the announcement of a new suit or new jacket or new glove or a new…something else altogether. With this dizzying flurry of activity, one might reasonably be convinced we’re on the verge of a revolutionizing transformation in the way we inhabit virtual spaces—one where corporeality counters and complements visuality, as just as it did in futurological computer-generated worlds like William Gibson’s Matrix, Neal Stephenson’s Metaverse, and Cline’s OASIS.

This piece is continued in Part II.

David Parisi is author of Archaeologies of Touch: Interfacing with Haptics from Electricity to Computing. Parisi is associate professor of emerging media at the College of Charleston.

Archaeologies of Touch weaves a careful history of haptic technology with a provocative analysis on the changing nature of how we recognize and measure touching. This allows David Parisi to provide the remarkable: a history of that which has always appeared just beyond our reach.”
—Phillip Thurtle, University of Washington

Archaeologies of Touch convincingly contextualizes recent forms of digital touch within an overarching history of psychophysiological and technological experimentation with the senses and sensory communication. David Parisi pulls together an impressive wealth of resources for scholars to understand how we ‘haptic subjects’ became haptic in the first place.”
—Mark Paterson, author of The Senses of Touch: Haptics, Affects and Technologies

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