Haptic interfaces – did the earth move for you?

Last October I visited the San Jose Tech Museum with some other people from Red Gate. We stumbled across a mechanical arm-wrestling machine. Here’s the twist though: the mechanical arm that you wrestle is connected with other, similar, machines across the USA. There’s a webcam too, so you can see who you’re wrestling. In California, Theo, Ross and I all cheered on as Anna slammed the arm of some jock over in New York against the table.

This is an example of a haptic interface: you interact with the device via touch, pressure and movement, rather than sight or sound. It’s an interesting example because it’s not just about you, the user, interacting with a device. It allows two people, separated by a large distance, to interact as if in the same place.

The arm-wrestling machine is a crude example of how physical gestures can be transmitted over large distances. Wouldn’t it be cool if you could transfer more complex gestures?

Well, it turns out you can. Almost. There’s a company in London called CuteCircuit who have prototyped what they call ‘The Hug Shirt’. The idea is that you buy two shirts: one for you, and one for a friend. You both put on your hug shirts. Your friend then travels off, to California, or Scotland, or wherever. You think your friend might be lonely and you want to send her something beyond an e-mail or an instant message. You hug yourself, squeezing your hug shirt. The shirt digitizes the exact form of your hug and sends the data to your mobile phone via a bluetooth connection. You text it to your friend. Your friend receives a message saying "Bob just sent you a hug. Do you want to feel it?". Her phone sends the hug to her hug shirt, and the hug shirt hugs her. Your hug – its strength, its pressure distribution, the warmth of your skin and your heartbeat – is replayed exactly the way you created it.

There are other people working on similar projects. Ben Hui at Cambridge University has a plan to send hand-squeezes via mobile phones. This is similar to a project that researchers at MIT’s European palpable machines research group were working on before the lab was shut down. Rather than a shirt, this could be built into mobile phones themselves. You could squeeze the phone and your friend would feel it, in some form, at the other end.

The value of these haptic devices is based on the idea that physical touch is important to human interactions. By transferring and replicating the physical touch you are, in fact, transferring and replicating the emotion.

I’m not sure that this is true though. The emotion you feel depends on more than just what you’re sensing. It also depends on the situation that you’re in: what your physical environment is, your mental state and your expectations. Here’s an illustration.

Also at the San Jose Tech Museum, there’s an earthquake simulator. You stand on a platform and the simulator replays the seismic data from an earthquake that’s actually happened. We re-experienced the earthquake that hit Turkey in 1999. In the real thing, 14,000 people died. In our simulation, the platform juddered for a bit and then we walked off, a bit disappointed.

Two days later, I was eating at The Grill at the Fairmont Hotel, just opposite the Tech Museum. At 8:04pm, the whole room starting shifting. It jumped left, right, forwards and backwards. The stack of wine bottles by the wall teetered, but didn’t fall. This real earthquake, an order of magnitude tamer than the simulated one, only lasted a few seconds, but it scared the shit out of me. Because of its unexpectedness, my mental state, its context, and its reality, it provoked emotions of fear, awe and wonder that the simulation didn’t and, probably, no simulation ever could.

So will the hapticon kill the emoticon? I’d like to think so, but there’s still life in the smiley face for now.