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“How is one to believe that touch cannot be virtualized?” Haptics technologies and the impossible dream of mediating tactility

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The recent development of new haptic feedback devices for virtual reality has prompted a wave of speculation about the possibilities of extending touch into virtual worlds.

Spurred on by the 2018 release of Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One — which featured a full-body haptic suit prominently throughout the film — popular press articles forecasted an imminent uptake of haptic gloves and bodysuits. Devices like the Teslasuit—an electrode-equipped haptic shirt that employs targeted bursts of electricity to stimulate the tactile nerves and take control over the wearer’s muscles–seem poised to make the long-promised dream of transmitting and simulating tactile sensations a reality.   

Navigating between deterministic predictions about the inevitability of haptics and humanist ontological pronouncements about touch’s inherent resistance to mediation, I situate the present hype cycle as part of longer trajectory in the history of technologized touching. Drawing on a combination of archival research and site visits to haptics companies, I show how the successful proliferation of haptic interfaces entails not only the invention of new and increasingly complex forms of touch technology, but also—and perhaps more crucially—the cultural production of a desire for haptics itself. Haptics firms, in crafting narratives around their products, attempt to produce this desire for digital touch by providing a sustained critique of visualist interfaces that locates haptics as an ameliorative and urgent corrective to a purported crisis of touch. Such narratives, however compellingly presented, remain haunted by suspicions that the dream of creating a convincing, commercially viable machine for the high-fidelity simulation of haptic sensations may prove impossible to realize.

David Parisi (PhD, NYU) is an Associate Professor of Emerging Media at the College of Charleston. His book Archaeologies of Touch: Interfacing with Haptics from Electricity to Computing (University of Minnesota Press, 2018) investigates the past, present and possible futures of technologized touch, weaving together accounts of tactility from psychophysics, cybernetics, electrotherapy, virtual reality, cybersex, and mobile communication to provide a comprehensive overview of the ways that touch has been radically transformed by its encounters with technoscience. Parisi’s work on the various mediations of touch has been featured in forums such as the Haptic Media Studies issue of New Media & Society, ROMchip: A Journal of Game HistoriesGame StudiesViceThe Wall Street JournalImmerseStroke of GeniusAll in the Mind, and INIT: A Podcast on the Tactile Internet.

 

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