REACHING OUT FROM AFAR
In 2014, Jussi Tuovinen, an engineer from Helsinki, accepted a position at a research institution at Trinity College in Dublin. Being far from his wife and three daughters, loneliness started to take over his days and evenings.
He would spend the nights alone with only the sound of a television providing a sense of companionship. The pale light that shone through his window served as a reminder of his solitary situation.
On a Saturday night, Tuovinen took his spouse out to an Italian eatery in Temple Bar, Dublin. He purchased a large pizza and selected a pleasant Italian red wine, then called her on Skype.
A man with a light brown beard and thinning hair, Tuovinen has an energized bounce and an air of cheerful joviality that brings to mind youthful confidence or good-natured drunkenness. In any case, as the meal advanced, his excitement rapidly died down.
By the time he had completed eating, he had a feeling of disheartenment.
All the platform appeared to be able to provide was an intermittent back-and-forth that might have been like a timid first date, not the closeness of a long haul relationship. “I was still missing something,” he recollects. “Her nearness, her touch.
The sentiment of being with her.” How could an audio-visual application possibly copy the sentiment of solace and warmth that encompassed him when he sat close to his better half on the couch and watched a film without exchanging a solitary word?
As an inventor specializing in millimeter wave technologies, Tuovinen has dedicated his career to tackling various issues. He was instrumental in launching a satellite to measure radiation from the beginning of the universe.
Additionally, he designed a concealed-weapons scanner meant to replace the X-ray machines renowned for producing risqué images of passengers. His stay in Dublin was brief, but the memory of his somber experiences remained.
He was determined to find a way to let people touch each other remotely.
NOT OUT OF ONE’S MIND
Rene Descartes stated that touch is the most challenging sense to question. Not only is it honest, but it is also the initial truth we comprehend. In the womb, it is the first sense we create.
At approximately seven weeks, we can experience the amniotic liquid that envelops us and the subtle feeling of our mother’s abdominal wall. We are touched and touching, which is how we first develop our awareness of ourselves.
Didier Anzieu, a French psychoanalyst, refers to touch as the initial language we learn. As babies, we understand the world through the interaction of its surfaces with ours. This exploration provides us with our first experiences of enjoyment and dissatisfaction.
Touch is a multi-layered sense. In addition to our tactile sense (our sense of being touched and touching), and the corporeal elements connecting us from within.
Touch additionally involves kinesthesia, our body’s recognition of itself in motion; proprioception, our sense of where we are in space; and our vestibular sense, our sense of balance.
It is in our nature to be social creatures, and thus, existing as a living being is inextricably linked to being surrounded by others.
Touch serves as a connection between us and the social world, ranging from the mundane and unnoticed, such as the brushing of bodies on the subway or bus, to the embraces and kisses of those we love. When we lack this contact, our sense of self and reality is destabilized.
This deprivation is a source of prolonged stress and can have adverse effects on our biology.
Prior to the pandemic, a few experts in the fields of social psychology and neuroscience were expressing concern that we were in the midst of a “touch famine.”
They noted that there had been a sharp decline in the amount of affiliative touch we experienced, as we had become more inclined to interact with digital screens rather than people.
Francis McGlone, a neuroscientist from Liverpool John Moores University, is one of the most vocal Cassandras on the importance of touch. According to him, it is essential to our development in the early years of life.
He cites studies of Romanian orphans who had a grim start in institutional care, where they were fed and watered but not handled. Consequently, they had difficulties in cognitive functioning and greater risk of psychiatric issues.
Recent research indicates that preterm infants with lingering attention and cognition issues can make great strides when they receive skin-to-skin contact while cradled against their mother’s chest.
According to the expert, not having that kind of early nurturing experience can lead to numerous psychological difficulties in the future, as the individual will be less equipped to handle stress.
Throughout the course of a person’s life, they can suffer the effects of harm that come from loneliness or “perceived isolation”. John Cacioppo, a social neuroscientist from the University of Chicago.
Has been a primary researcher in this area for the last few decades, and has demonstrated its capacity to reduce immunity and even add up to a 26 percent increase in the chances of an early death. It is also known to cause the hormones related to stress to build up within the body.
McGlone believes this collection of work nearly reaches the truth. “What John did not understand,” McGlone states, “was the reason why.
What is missing for lonely people? Touch!” Specifically, soft touch can release hormones such as oxytocin and endogenous opioids that can help to reduce pain and make us feel content.
“Not ecstatic,” McGlone clarifies, “but more at ease. It is a replenishment that places people in a more comfortable state of mind.”
The C-tactile afferent, a nerve fiber that has evolved to receive caresses, lies beneath hairy skin and is most responsive to strokes that move at a speed of three centimeters per second.
Stimulation of this fiber activates messages that are passed on to certain parts of the brain responsible for regulating emotions, social behavior and one’s sense of self.
During this period of physical distancing, we do not have access to the gentle touch that this nerve fiber requires to maintain a “reasonable” mood state. As McGlone states, “This nerve fiber is getting very lonely, I’m afraid! It needs to be stimulated.”
In the nineteenth century, a German anatomist named Ernst Heinrich Weber conducted experiments to discover the science of touch, known as haptics.
He tested his theories on himself, his brother Eduard, and a variety of other people, including merchants, mathematicians, and students of literature.
To better understand sensations like pressure, weight, temperature, and pain, Weber subjected himself and a few “good observers” to uncomfortable experiments such as tapping his thumb with a hammer and giving himself and two other people cold-water enemas.
This research laid the groundwork for modern haptic technology, which could provide an outlet for our need to be touched.
Inventions related to haptics commenced a century later, when the Manhattan Project enabled the creation of a mechanical arm with the capacity to provide tactile feedback to those operating in hazardous nuclear plants. This was the start of the Cold War.
The gaming and virtual reality surge of the 1990s, also known as the era of haptic interfaces, introduced the most influential consumer haptic device we have today – a vibrating game pad that vibrates in reaction to events on-screen.
Now, with the widespread use of smartphones and fitness trackers, the availability of vibration as a haptic sensation is accessible to everyone.
The importance of social touch cannot be overstated, yet many haptic inventions have been crafted primarily for industrial purposes. The PHANToM, created by engineers from MIT, is one of the most renowned haptic devices.
It is capable of gauging the impetus and direction necessary for controlling virtual objects. This technology is widely used for dental and knee surgery instruction, as well as for veterinary student training and to assist aerospace engineers in designing new aircraft.
Researchers who study digital touch technology have noted several reasons why inventors tend to stay away from social touch. Measuring the efficacy of such a device is much more difficult than evaluating an assembly line process.
The prices are also too high for them to become commercially viable. Consequently, the gadgets that generate the most attention at haptics conferences rarely make it to the market.
Existing devices can provide only a single sensation – vibration, pressure, or temperature – at a time, making it challenging to create the combined sensation of fingers brushing against skin. It is similar to making a presidential portrait with only a fingertip and a splotch of paint.
As the coronavirus has shifted our lives online, could the concept of remote touching become a reality? We are all in the same situation as Tuovinen was in the Dublin pizzeria, attempting to create intimacy and connection with digital applications that seem to make it difficult.
Inventors like Tuovinen are striving to make a difference. They are hoping that when the next wave of pandemics comes, the device they made will be the one we use to replicate a hug, kiss, or caress on our tiring video calls.
EMBRACES AND SALUTATIONS FROM THE SPECTRUM
In April 2020, Tuovinen was on a video call with me from JoyHaptics’ office in Helsinki. The office was filled with light and green walls, and the many stuffed animals on display revealed his playful spirit.
He was wearing a blue-checked shirt and his sense of humour was apparent – he had been doing improv comedy with a local troupe for years.
When I asked his age, he jokingly replied that he had to be at least thirty-four, since his oldest daughter was that age. (In fact, he was sixty.)
I inquired as to how he would introduce himself to those he meets, to which he replied, “Sometimes I say I’m a neuro-sexual. Are you familiar with that term?” I shook my head in the negative. “It essentially means someone who finds the brain to be the sexiest organ.”
“The brain?” I asked. “I don’t know, you might have come up with something else!” he said, smiling. When I asked if he saw himself as an engineer or an inventor, he jokingly chided me for wanting to categorize him.
“What I really am,” he continued, “is a tech-enthusiast, a nerd, who is extremely passionate about people and their interactions.”
When Tuovinen was a child, he initially thought he would become “an electric man” due to his electrician uncle, or a priest as his family had many of them. He eventually discovered what he was passionate about: making gadgets and assisting people.
At the age of ten, he created a universal key for piggy banks which he sold to his peers for fifty cents each. By the time he was twelve, he had designed a robotic arm.
As a teenager, he came up with a switch-operated mechanical device that displayed a learner’s permit sign in the back window of the two-door station wagon.
Tuovinen views himself as the spiritual descendant of Erik Luoto, his great-grandfather, who was a metalsmith in a village located 100 miles east of Helsinki. During his time, Erik was employed by a shipping company that shipped logs to a paper factory.
He crafted his own tools, which he used to mend the spokes, sledges, and clocks in that same village. Furthermore, he constructed a wooden cottage that Tuovinen eventually inherited. Despite its age of more than a century, it remains standing perfectly straight.
As Tuovinen also works with his hands, creating wooden furniture or one-of-a-kind household gadgets, he is deeply moved by the evident pride his ancestor had in his work. He states, “I never got to meet him, but I feel like I have a close connection to him. I’m continuing on the same path. If there’s a problem, I build my own solution.”
Tuovinen has been financially supported with a total budget of $588,000 from various sources, ranging from private investors in Europe and Asia to grants from agencies that fund start-ups. This has allowed him to experiment with fifty prototypes over a period of four years.
Among these is an orange pyramid with knobbly surfaces, which is a patented haptic switch for controlling lights. After this, there was a C-shaped cushion that functioned like a hand massager.
Subsequently, a collection of bracelets with black dials was developed for sending and receiving touch gestures. The dials of these bracelets could move, create a squeezing sensation, and rotate.
Tuovinen further experimented by combining and amplifying these sensations, using something called an eccentric rotating mass motor, similar to the machinery that causes smartphones to vibrate.
In 2017, Tuovinen experienced a major step forward with his work. He crafted two faceless off-white figures, akin to partially-cooked gingerbread men, that had short arms that either swayed or trembled.
He discovered that this “character” could serve as a representation of an individual. Upon testing the two versions, people overwhelmingly favored the swaying movement. Thus, he kept this feature and played around with the form.
Tuovinen had a vision to replace the gingerbread man with a brown dog with a knobbly tail, then a furry teddy bear and a sleeker, furless version, which felt right.
It was meant to be a high-end communication device, so he employed product designer Tapani Jokinen, creator of the Nokia 3310, to make this “smart-bear”.
Jokinen presented an idea for a bouncing Baloo-like bear from The Jungle Book and then a bear with a kangaroo pouch to fit a smartphone.
At last, Tuovinen crafted the iXu bear (which is pronounced “eek-su,” the same as the Finnish slang for “I miss you”).
He excitedly presented it to the camera, proclaiming, “This is Teddy Bear 2.0!” The bear is a foot-long furless creature with a seal-like face and spread-out limbs like a starfish.
It has a swiveling device embedded in its shoulder for a smoother arm movement, compared to the jerky motion of the gingerbread man design, which created “a strong alien effect.”
The device works like a furry walkie-talkie, with its best use being through a pair. Imagine, for example, a couple separated by distance; each with a fully charged smart-bear in hand, able to feel the other’s touches through sensors that capture pressure and speed.
By using Bluetooth and a 3G or 4G connection, caresses can be sent directly from the smartphone by swiping across the screen.
Tuovinen lifts the bear up to his chest and shows it off. “Now it is eye-to-eye with you,” he states while looking at the bear with affection.
“Hold it; it will be a pleasant experience…” He quickly moves his finger on the app on his smartphone, and the bear’s paw begins to stroke his arm at the speed of three centimeters per second. “It’s a gentle, dynamic caress,” he explains.
“Not like the dik-dik-dik of a windshield wiper.”
Tuovinen is anticipating a future pandemic, and with it his plan of sending out a battalion of smart-bears to provide company for anyone in quarantine. Each bear would cost around three hundred dollars, making them more affordable than most smartphones.
This way, couples stuck apart could still experience shared moments, such as watching films and sending one another a “touch”.
Tuovinen has faith in his invention, which he believes is the best haptic communication device available.
He tried out the Dutch Hey Bracelet, which sends and receives light squeezing sensations as a form of greeting, but he does not think it will succeed. “I can’t imagine that it’s my wife,” Tuovinen says.
The iXu bear, however, serves as a substitution for the real thing. Tuovinen remarks, “When you’re holding the bear, you can think: this is my beloved.”
In Tuovinen’s ad for their smart-bear, the company portrays a long-distance couple; the brunette with the bear on her chest, and her bearded partner touching his bear’s back from a bed far away.
The music in the background builds up as both of them close their eyes and imagine being together. This scene is reminiscent of a Black Mirror episode with its imaginative usage of technology that is humorous yet strangely familiar.
Tuovinen’s insight to create the smart-bear that could stroke was an epiphany that was preceded by two developments: a shirt that gives hugs and a device that can send kisses. In 2014, Hooman Samani, a robotics engineer at National Taipei University, created a set of plastic robots that were able to transmit and receive “tele-kisses” and dubbed them “Kissengers,” a combination of the words “kiss” and “messenger.”
Samani, speaking on Skype from his office in Taipei, describes the genesis of his kiss-dispatcher as a result of his theoretical interest in lovotics–a combination of love and robotics –which he established in 2009.
The lanky, curly-haired man of Iranian descent presents a flat, serious manner that appears unresponsive to the absurdity of the things he talks about.
He reveals, “I was curious about human-robot romantic relationships and the like, but when I did research with people concerning their expectations of robot behavior, the first query was usually, ‘Can I kiss my robot?'”
The idea seemed peculiar to him, yet it made him ponder.
“Kissing a robot is an unusual concept,” he commented. “So I considered, What about utilizing the robot as an interface instead of directly kissing it?” His first kissable interface resembled a combined rabbit-pig, where you could either give or receive a kiss on its nose.
But he was uncertain if it worked. “Kissing the lips of a rabbit and a pig would have been very eerie,” he explains. “Therefore, we decided it ought to be something that no one knows what it is.”
That is as good a logic as any for the current design of the device: plastic alien-heads on stems, with bionic eyes and broad scarlet lips.
Samani explained the concept of the tele-kiss to me. You would first purchase one of these lippy aliens and send it to your partner, then you would both access the app and initiate a video call.
After that, each of you would press the alien to your lips, for the pressure sensors to record the impression of your lips and transmit it to the other side. After a short wait (depending on connection speeds), your partner’s alien would vibrate against yours.
Samani said that it’s a basic feeling – “a kind of reminder” – but due to the pandemic, the interest in these alien kissers has significantly increased.
Between 2016 and 2018, he sold a few hundred of the devices at a cost of thirty-five dollars each; however, he has not made any since then. He would usually get a few emails around holidays, but the amount of requests and inquiries now have tripled.
Demand has been rapidly increasing for the HugShirt, a thin microfiber T-shirt with tiny actuators that can be operated to “caress” the skin from a distance.
CuteCircuit, the London-based smart-clothing firm created by Francesca Rosella and Ryan Genz, had first designed the device in 2004 and has been worn by the likes of Katy Perry and Nicole Scherzinger.
Although Rosella and Genz stopped production of the Hug Shirt two years ago, they now plan to bring it out of retirement due to the messages they have received since the lockdowns started.
Many of these messages have come from American families in hospitals, seeking a way to send hugs to sick COVID-19 patients. The new HugShirt will come with a revised app that will enable people to send a pre-recorded hug, which is the haptic version of a voice message.
As Genz puts it, “If you want to, you can now hug the world.”
GOING FROM UNINTERESTING TO SIGNIFICANCE
You would have to be willing to suspend your disbelief in order to interpret the rumbling of plastic against your lips as a kiss, a cotton top undulating against your skin as a hug, or a teddy bear’s paw swiping as a caress.
Virtual touching is an act of hopeful interpretation and imaginative faith. It is accepting the lack of physical limitations, personifying plastic, and being embraced by nothingness. This action must be done without the presence of the body and without self-awareness.
The ongoing touch crisis has led people to experiment with these odd, yet sometimes humorous, attempts at pseudo-touch – will they continue?
David Parisi, a media historian at South Carolina’s College of Charleston, whose research focuses on the history, present and future of physical touch, believes that remote hugs, such as smart-bears or shirts, could be more popular if they were more affordable.
Talking to me on Zoom, with a fire-tinged portal in the background, he said: “It’s difficult to anticipate the reaction to these products.
Will physical distancing make people so desperate for physical touch that they’d be willing to buy them, or are the replacements not good enough to justify their cost?”
In Parisi’s memory, the late 1980s was a time when people had second thoughts about making long-distance phone calls due to the cost.
As a response, AT&T initiated its ‘Reach out and touch someone’ campaign, attempting to persuade customers that the call quality was so good, it was as if they were physically with the one they were calling–which made the expensive fees worth it.
Carey Jewitt, a researcher in social touch from University College London, is quite optimistic. According to her observations, individuals definitely want the presence of such inventions.
They desire to be able to “reach through the screen” as well as to have a “sensorial experience” that surpasses what audiovisual applications offer.
Jewitt concedes that most haptic prototypes are expensive and not particularly inviting – using the British term ‘naff’ – yet she was still taken aback by how people are willing to “make meaning out of them.”
“Although they may not be very attractive, they may not be reliable for actual use, and they don’t deliver what we want,” she states. “Nevertheless, each of these inventions is still accomplishing something important,” she adds.
“They are expanding the boundary, readying the market for these kinds of applications and making people ponder about touch in a new way.”
IN-TOUCH, Jewitt’s laboratory, has presented workshops with a variety of haptic gadgets, like the Kissenger and sensor-laden gloves that look like oven mitts.
During a recent interactive show, a guest was asked to interpret the heat of a glove as if it were a communication from a distant pal, which she did without difficulty.
She expressed, “I could sense the warm temperature and I thought she needed to tell me, Cheer up!” Another glove-wearer said of their faraway touch-sending friend, “He appears to know what I am thinking, so I suppose sending a message would not be that difficult.”
Jewitt’s experiments demonstrate that remote touch is most effective in a situation of existing intimacy, where users can associate tactile sensations with prior experiences.
A study on haptic knobs showed that when two participants were romantically involved, they were able to interpret each other’s emotional states with the highest accuracy.
This raises the question of why inventors limit themselves to conventional expressions of affection when so much of courtship and romance has already gone digital. Could haptic engineers help us become more adept virtual lovers?
SEXUALITY IN THE FUTURE
In the 1990s, the idea of virtual contact and congress was seen as a possibility, especially in California. Magazines such as Future Sex and Mondo 2000 envisioned a cybersexual utopia that included body modification, bondage, and all forms of kink.
These magazines sought to break down all barriers–class, race, distance, gender, sexuality, and even humanness–amid the AIDS crisis.
Howard Rheingold, a renowned writer and thinker on virtual communities, predicted an “erotic telepresence” technology that would allow for contact with anyone, regardless of distance.
He thought that this technology, known as “teledildonics,” would completely transform the concept of Eros. Rheingold foresaw a future in which “genital effectors” and virtual disguises would make everyone appear as desirable as everyone else.
The pages of Future Sex featured a plethora of wild possibilities, from cyber-tantric sex to robotic partners.
One article from 1992, “Cybersex,” predicted that by 2020, “Carnal Knowledge Engineers” would have designed a wide range of equipment, including bodysuits with sensory membranes, helmets connected to brain-feeds, and tactile gloves, to facilitate tele-sex that replicated real-life experiences.
The article also suggested that people would have access to faster internet speeds, which would make it possible to use the “orgasmatron,” a souped-up sex-tech system that provides “a very realistic simulation of great proportions.”
In 1992, Trudy Barber created her final-year art project at Central Saint Martins in London. During a Skype interview, she excitedly discussed the project and its features.
Barber said she built a black corridor with people behind rubber sheeting, who were connected to tubes of some kind. After walking through the corridor, the person would be in the world’s first virtual reality sex environment. There were bright lights and off-putting moans.
To manipulate the images, there was a joystick. Barber described a male body with an erection, that could get as big as the user wanted. Along with the male body, there was a Venus de Milo, a flying dildo and a flying condom, all made of chunky, colorful pixels.
The idea was to catch the condom and put it on the virtual erection.
Barber was confident that her immersive sexual atmosphere was the “start of something,” but now that virtual stiffie appears to be drooping. Instead of orgasmatrons on every street corner, we have a few “smart vibrators” that take your confidential information without authorization.
Back in the mid-2010s, an adult entertainment company created a way to give virtual blow jobs. Engineers encoded sensations into the porn videos and sent them to users through a haptic sock placed around their penis.
Once they connected the device to the computer and ran the video, they could not only see the action, but could also feel three separate sensations: vibration, pressure, and temperature.
Unfortunately, the engineers got stuck in a patent conflict and the device was never heard of again. “It was an amazing invention that worked better than anything since,” says Parisi with a hint of regret.
Currently, there is a dearth of gear for a gratifying weekend of virtual sex because, unfortunately, Silicon Valley and the research facilities that supply it, lack enthusiasm in investing in such pursuits.
“You will find no paper on cybersex in the World Haptics Conference,” says Parisi.
In his fifteen years of research in the area, he has observed a great deal of “boundary policing.” “I find it interesting and thrilling to discuss cybersex in a rational manner,” he states. “Still, it has a tendency to suck all the oxygen out of the room.”
TINY FLICKERS OF DISCOMFORT
When inventors do not produce new creations, users become innovative with what already exists.
Those who are not part of academia or Silicon Valley research teams, who are known as ‘citizen experimenters’ in the virtual touch sphere, are determined to take joy from found haptic objects.
Before the first virtual reality headsets were released in 2015, macrophiles, who fantasise about being crushed, thrown and sat upon by giantesses, found solace in Japanese anime pornography that showed those scenes.
However, the technology enabled independent creators to make immersive virtual reality experiences that enabled macrophiles to feel like they were a tiny part of their fantasies.
The developers generously shared the videos for free, and macrophiles were quick to spread the news and links. Those with different dreams form supportive groups on platforms such as Discord, where they help one another with software and hardware issues.
Kyle Machulis, a roboticist and engineer, is known as a pioneering figure in cyber-voluptuaries. Over the past sixteen years, he has been working to develop ways to control sex toys from a distance.
His successful projects are available to the public on Buttplug.io. Despite the free access, not everyone is able to utilize the technology. Machulis notes that the hardware is costly and requires a great deal of technical knowledge to operate.
He often references William Gibson’s quote, “The future is already here,” to explain that teledildonics is available, but not to everyone.
Not everyone would consider activities that are enabled by Buttplug.io to be related to pleasure. Machulis recently offered technical assistance to cam model Riley Scarlett, who used his software to interact with her fans in a different way.
They played a racing game and when their cars collided with hers, a sex toy would vibrate. This enabled them to interact with her in a way that was not based on exhibitionism, objectifying her, or relying solely on monetary transactions.
Machulis believes that the current state of cybersexual activities is absurd. He argues that we lack an imaginative model for how to go about remote sex, as the digital tools used for pleasure-seeking are designed for physical encounters.
He goes on to say that this absence of a framework is what makes it so difficult to successfully construct a tryst at a distance.
“You’re attempting to utilize technology to replicate being in someone’s most intimate space, but you have to do that without being able to communicate with nonverbal cues,” he states.
The current haptic technology does not replicate the natural, rhythmic, and responsive strokes that would be necessary for a realistic sexual experience. It could, however, provide sudden, intense shocks, which has made it particularly attractive to the BDSM scene.
According to Machulis, some members of the community have even gone so far as to wear Bluetooth-controlled chastity cages on their penises. “The practicality of this choice is, however, debatable,” he commented.
It certainly appears that it is effective. Remote pain and its anticipation are common in BDSM activities and rituals.
Barber, the inventor of the first VR orgasmatron, remembers an occasion in London in the late 1990s.
She entered a dim room whose walls were decorated with TVs displaying “tacky bondage films”. Someone presented her with a remote control and she pressed one button after the other, expecting something to happen.
“I thought, Nothing’s happening!” she relates. “And then I heard someone shouting: ‘Ow! Ow!'” The cries came from a nearby cupboard. She opened the door and saw a gimp-clad man. “And he said: ‘Thank you, mistress!'” she relates fondly.
In the British county of Buckinghamshire, an engineer known as Gary has designed numerous contraptions to give electric shocks to his partner, Kay, with the help of many remote attendants hailing from across the globe.
This set-up includes electrode pads, a remote-controlled magic-wand massager, and even some dog shock collars of which Gary refers to as “vile machines”.
Nonetheless, he insists “they’re fun for what we do!” His pleasure lies in the collective anticipation of the shock rather than the shock itself; the more people present, the more thrilling the experience.
Gary’s experiments in virtual shocking can teach us a lesson, even if we don’t intend to use a shock collar. His findings indicate that if we are open to trying something new, daring, and fun, then technology can give us a way to experience enjoyable contact in a virtual setting.
THE FEELING OF REALITY
In late May 2020, I had another conversation with Jussi Tuovinen. He informed me that Finland was beginning to reopen. “It’s a good thing,” he said, “because people can go back to their hobbies.” He mentioned that the Zoom comedy sessions were “not great.”
He was expecting his smart-bears to be ready for mass production shortly, and they will be able to assist people in connecting with each other from a distance.
Tuovinen emphasizes his conviction that nothing existing can compare to the impact that his bears will have. To illustrate this, he shows me a video of a trip he took to a senior home in Helsinki, just prior to the pandemic.
An elderly woman with white, thinning hair has a smart-bear curled up in her arm. She lightly prods its nose and wonders, “How are you? Who are you?” Tuovinen says the bear’s name is iXu and the lady remarks, “You are a beautiful teddy.” As she strokes its chest,
Tuovinen swipes a finger on the app’s interface and the bear’s arm starts to move in response. She embraces it and rubs its foot. When he asks her how it makes her feel, she replies, “It feels like a real touch. It’s like a living thing. It’s nice what it’s doing.”
Tuovinen viewed the bear’s interaction with the woman as a validation of the concept. Although it was only a few feet away, the bear’s touch was tangible and provided her solace and companionship.
Parisi saw this as an illustration of the expensive phone calls of the 1980s. Tuovinen, however, was reminded of the revolutionary period of telecommunications in the early twentieth century, when telephones first began to transmit voices over wires.
This was described by The New York Times in 1874 as an “extraordinary electro-physiological phenomenon” that had no clear purpose. Clarence Day wrote in The New Yorker in 1933 that his mother was so wary of the contraption that she would not even touch it.
But over time, telephones were commonplace and the more people used them, the more practical the technology became.
The transition of a new technology from strange to commonplace requires an unknown force to push it forward. Our current social distancing situation has shown us how to make the most of the apps we have to stay connected to our loved ones.
We use these apps to watch movies with friends and talk about our daily lives, creating a virtual space to feel close to one another. However, it’s uncertain if we are ready to accept a digital version of physical contact.
Tuovinen believes that remote touch will soon become a part of our lives, and every new invention brings this future closer to reality.
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