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

David Parisi
Associate Professor of Emerging Media, College of Charleston

Preceded by Part I.

Historicizing Haptic Hype

Also in 2018, amidst the billowing excitement over the latest wave of haptic devices and the growing anticipation for Ready Player One, I published Archaeologies of Touch: Interfacing with Haptics from Electricity to Computing, where I explicitly attempt to provide a critical and comprehensive history for haptic interfaces. Part of the book’s goal is to destabilize the purported novelty of haptics—to complicate what has been a simplistic origin story—by linking the genesis of these virtual touch machines to a series of ancestral predecessors. Eighteenth-century electric shock batteries used to treat everything from headaches to tonsillitis, blunt-ended compasses adopted by psychologists in the nineteenth century to map the nerves responsible for tactual perception, and apparatuses built in the mid-twentieth century to translate sounds and images into tactile sensations: each helped provide the raw materials for contemporary haptics engineers, while also serving as examples of touch being transformed by technology far in advance of Computer Haptics cohering as a dedicated research field in the late 20th century.

As I attempted to contextualize the genesis of computer-assisted touch, the hype cycles that recurrently surrounded haptics technologies became a central target of the intervention I hoped the book would make: at least as far back as 1991, when Howard Rheingold published his bestselling Virtual Reality: The Revolutionary Technology of Computer-Generated Artificial Worlds, the possibility of computerized touch has been a subject of ongoing fascination for technology journalists. Every few years since, a reporter would ‘discover’ haptics, write up a story about the potential of what’s going on in a research lab to revolutionize human-computer interaction, and pronounce the technology’s impending arrival with certitude. The rhetoric in these articles manages to straddle the line between seductive technoutopianism and humanism, with haptic tech offering to provide a sense of embodied presence capable of countering the detached visuality of the standard graphical interfaces. Since I began following the field in 2002, I’ve witnessed this trend repeatedly, with my own opinions and prognostications on haptics swinging wildly over the years. I’ve been intoxicated, at different moments, on hype that served to validate my own research program, triumphantly declaring the forthcoming death of television (a claim I might have unwittingly cribbed from an Arthur C. Clark quote on the back cover of Virtual Reality: “Virtual Reality won’t merely replace TV. It will eat it alive.”). At other points, I approached haptics as a failed tech whose rejection might indicate something about the cultural resistance to technologizing touch.

I gradually came to confront my own roller coaster of emotions on haptics reflexively, trying to see the noisy hype cycles themselves as a type of signal, not of anything definitive about haptics tech itself, but rather, as a sign that we continually want to use touch as a way of transforming our relationship to computing technologies. For haptics prosthelytizers, the fascination with digitizing touch indicates a deep dissatisfaction with the dominant visualist interfacing schematic in computing, signaling a desire to get back to a mode of being in the world that grounded in visceral, bodily interaction, rather than detached and distanced observation. Noting the recurrence of this technoprimitivist impulse in the haptics literature, I became less invested in projecting the future of technologized touch, and began treating haptics as the outcome of a transformative desire motivating those who research and write on it.

The popular press and engineering discourse, as I suggest in Archaeologies of Touch, mobilizes three intertwined logics—or narrative frameworks—to make sense of haptics technologies: The first, the logic of the analog medialization of the senses, suggests that touch technologies will do for touch what technologies of image- and sound reproduction previously did for the eyes and the ears. A 2008 Economist article, for example, described “a new breed of ‘haptic’ technologies that do for the sense of touch what lifelike colour displays and hi-fi sound do for eyes and ears.” The second, the logic of the master device, proceeds from the assumption that the future of haptics will be marked by the triumph of a single standard device for recording, storing, and transmitting touch sensations, rather than a proliferation of application-specific devices. The third narrative framework, a logic of perpetual immanence, situates haptics as an inevitable technology that is on the cusp of widespread adoption and domestication. Back in 2012, for example, IBM’s Robyn Swartz declared “Within the next five years, your mobile device will let you touch what you’re shopping for online. It will distinguish fabrics, textures, and weaves so that you can feel a sweater, jacket, or upholstery – right through the screen.” The particulars of these narratives differ—some suggest more conservative timelines for adoption, while others, like Swartz, predict a more rapid proliferation—but in the nearly 30 years since the publication of Rheingold’s Virtual Reality, they’ve retained a striking consistency to their framing.

During this period, we’ve seen the steady bleed of haptics out from the design labs into everyday life: rumble feedback (ubiquitous in game controllers since 1997), vibrating alert systems (used in pagers, now found in smartphones and wearables), military and surgical training, computer-assisted design, medical rehabilitation, and aides for those with visual and hearing impairments, to name just a small subset (for a more complete picture of the field’s history, see Hasti Seifi’s comprehensive database and visualization project). All while we’ve been talking about haptics as a technology of some exotic and far-flung future, it’s been here, hiding in plain touch. Attempts to incorporate touch feedback into computing began in the late 1960s (first with Frederick Brooks and J.J. Batter’s Project GROPE, followed soon after by Michael Noll’s force feedback joystick), but this early history is frequently overlooked, feeding forward an inaccurate narrative that situates haptics as excitingly novel. Our current moment seems to be less about a sudden emergence of a new wave of devices, but rather, a sort of arbitrarily-chosen endpoint in a long process of gradual knowledge accumulation. The number of haptics-related scientific and technical publications has been rising consistently but sharply since the mid-1990s (roughly 350 in 1997, 2500 in 2007, and then nearly 7000 in 2017), with some significant fruit borne occasionally along the way.

The Future Might Be Haptic

My knee-jerk response to 2018 has been to double down on the thesis I posited in Archaeologies of Touch, and label this Just Another Hype Cycle. But what if, with this latest generation of VR, something fundamental has shifted? What if this array of experimental gloves, bodysuits, and vests quickly settles into an enduring, stable, and widely-adopted unifying device? How would we begin to assess claims that haptics has ‘arrived’ in 2018, especially after so many similar declarations in the past? (another: Wired magazine described the ‘sensational rise of haptic interfaces’ in 2013) How do we see through the fog of marketing campaigns and impressive tech demos to assess the state of touch’s technologization? Premature obsolescence is a danger inherent whenever writing about emerging technology, one the Archaeologies of Touch doesn’t possess any particular immunity to. So it is at least worth considering the possibility that we’re at a long-awaited turning point in the history of touch technology—that we’re entering something that looks like an ‘epoch of haptic interfacing’ (a phrase already used by the interface designer Hiroo Iwata to describe research in the field during the 1990s). But more importantly: why does it matter? What are the macro-level implications of haptics technology that should be of concern to those outside the narrow field of human-computer interaction research?

Rather engaging in the folly of technological prediction here, I’ll speak instead to the latter set of questions. If the foretold future comes to pass—if haptics achieves the widespread adoption predicted for nearly 30 years—then this is where things will get very interesting very quickly. It’s inadequate to merely claim that touch is being taken over by or expressed through or merged with digital technology; rather, we need to describe the microphysics of this transformation. Part of the thesis I’ve been advancing in my work on haptics involves taking seriously Marshall McLuhan’s claim that transformations in media also bring with them transformations in the cultural sensorium—transformations in the ways we use our senses to know, relate to, and experience the world. New technologies of perception change the ground from which we make epistemic claims: the (possibly) impending rise of haptic media demands our attention because of its potential to reawaken and re-empower a haptic epistemology. But ‘touch’ is always an imperfect and messy descriptor: even speaking from a strictly psychophysical standpoint, touch refers to sensations such as movement, weight, vibration, texture, temperature, and pain. If we use the term ‘feeling,’ the range of meanings expands considerably, encompassing all sorts of affective states that can be activated and induced by digital technologies.

Accordingly, when we say that touch is being expressed (or transmitted, or extended, or synthesized, or communicated) by digital media, this should just be the start to a line of questioning: we need to understand how touch is being expressed, and which model of touching is being embedded in the material configuration of these new haptic media. Through their design and standardization, haptic interfaces encode normative models of sensory and bodily functioning—much of the twentieth century research on touch communication, for example, was driven by attempts to rehabilitate bodies deemed to be disabled—and tracing the specific lineages of these models can provide insight on the power dynamics circulated through touch technologies. But these devices are also expressions of a desire to contest existing dominant models of mediation—tacit challenges to the sensory ordering of audiovisualist media, often touted explicitly by haptics designers and marketers for their potential to stage an upheaval in our mode of mediatic existence.

By providing specific examples of touch’s rearticulation in the scientific, medical, and technical literature on haptics, Archaeologies of Touch was intended to lay a historical foundation for future studies of technologized touch, while also recognizing that this history is necessarily incomplete, always subject to contestation and revision. In short, this historical framework implies an ongoing empirical project that will complement, challenge, and perhaps even blow up the genealogy I establish. More flexible models that push back on the rigid scientism of the engineering and psychophysics literature, akin to the sort of investigations currently being undertaken by Carey Jewitt and Sara Price as part of their InTouch research program, can provide a valuable picture of the cultural responses to digital touch. Building partnerships between humanists and engineers, engaging in ethnographic studies of how touch gets constructed in haptics labs, will also illuminate, to paraphrase the medical historian Robert Jütte, the “use value” touch attains as a result of new technologies of perception. We should be grappling with haptics interfaces as sites where conflicts between corporate actors are played out (as with Immersion Corporation’s myriad patent infringement lawsuits), while also recognizing their potential to open up new aesthetic and experiential possibilities (through the incorporation of haptics into digital storytelling, for example). The challenge that faces us, if 2018 ends up being a turning point for haptics, is to navigate between the technofestihism often embraced by hapticians and the technodystopianism that humanist critiques of technology fall too readily back on, so that we can get a clear and sober understanding of the way haptic media, by allowing us to feel things that aren’t really there, transform the sensory epistemology of digital worlds, while also reshaping the constitution of touch itself.


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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