TOUCHING ACROSS A VOID
In the summer of 2014, Jussi Tuovinen, an engineer from Helsinki, found himself alone in Dublin. What drew him there was a prestigious post at a research institution at Trinity College. Away from his wife and three daughters, though, he felt increasingly lonely. He began to dread the evenings. The wan light outside his window seemed to portend the gloomy inevitability of what lay ahead: a modest supper alone, with muffled voices on the television providing an ambient sense of company.
One Saturday evening, he invited his wife on a date to an Italian restaurant in Dublin’s raucous Temple Bar district. He ordered a large pizza, chose a nice Italian red, and summoned her up on Skype. A man with a dark blond beard and receding hairline, Tuovinen has a buoyant gait and an air of upbeat humorousness that recalls youthful overconfidence or pleasant inebriation. But as the dinner progressed, he felt his enthusiasm rapidly wane. By the time he had finished eating, he felt deflated. All the platform seemed to be able to facilitate was an intermittent back-and-forth that might have approximated a nervous first date, not the intimacy of a long-term partnership. “I was still missing something,” he recalls. “Her closeness, her touch. The feeling of being with her.” How could an audiovisual application possibly replicate the feeling of ease and warmth that enveloped him when he sat next to his wife on the couch and watched a movie without exchanging a word?
As an inventor specializing in millimeter wave technologies, Tuovinen has spent his career devising solutions to problems. He has helped send a satellite into space to measure radiation left over from the origin of the cosmos. He has designed a concealed-weapons scanner, intended to replace the X-ray machines known for generating X-rated life drawings of travelers. His stint in Dublin was only eleven months long, but the memory of those melancholic hours stayed with him. It became a problem he was determined to solve: How could he help people touch one another across a distance?
NOT BARKING MAD
René Descartes said touch is the most difficult sense to doubt. Touch isn’t just truthful; it’s the earliest truth we know. It’s the first sense we develop in the womb. At about seven weeks, we feel the amniotic fluid that cloaks us and the soft impression of our mother’s abdominal wall. We are touched, we touch, and from that experience emerges our earliest sense of self. The French psychoanalyst Didier Anzieu calls touch the first language we learn. As infants, he points out, we learn about the world through the contact of its surfaces with ours. These explorations give us our first experiences of pleasure and displeasure. But touch is a nested sense. Aside from our tactile sense (our sense of being touched and touching), and the corporeal constituents touching us from within, touch also encompasses kinesthesia, our body’s awareness of itself in motion; proprioception, our sense of where we are in space; and our vestibular sense, our sense of balance.
We are social creatures, and so being alive is inextricable from being among people. And touch is the interface between us and our social world—both touch that’s unremarkable and unremarked-upon, like the gentle bump and sway of other people’s bodies against yours in the subway or bus, and the hugs and caresses of people you love. When all of this contact disappears, so, too, does our stable sense of self and reality. It is a stressful experience that causes deep, lasting biological harm.
Well before the novel coronavirus taught us to maintain a fearful distance from everyone else, a clutch of Cassandras from the fields of social psychology and neuroscience were warning us that we were experiencing a touch famine—that rates of affiliative touch had dropped to a fifty-year low because we were all choosing to stroke digital displays instead of one another.
Francis McGlone, a neuroscientist at Liverpool John Moores University, may be the crotchetiest of these Cassandras. “Touch isn’t some hippie thing; it’s fundamental,” he says. In our first years of life, touch is crucial to our development. He cites studies of Romanian orphans who spent their earliest years in grim institutional care. “They were fed and watered; they were not handled,” he says tersely. This deprivation left them with impaired or delayed cognitive function and higher rates of psychiatric problems.
More-recent studies have shown that preterm infants, who can have persistent deficits in attention and cognitive development, improve dramatically when they are cradled against their mother’s chest and receive skin-to-skin contact. “If you don’t have that early nurturing experience, you won’t be barking mad,” he adds; “you’ll just have a whole range of psychosocial patho-states because you’re less resilient to stress.”
Such damage can occur throughout one’s lifetime. Over the past few decades, researchers, most notably the University of Chicago social neuroscientist John Cacioppo, have drawn attention to the corrosive effects of loneliness or “perceived isolation.” They’ve pointed out that it impairs immunity, and could amplify the risk of premature death by as much as 26 percent. And they’ve laid out exactly how it harms us, causing stress hormones to course through our systems unchecked.
McGlone thinks this body of work brushes up tantalizingly close to the truth. “What John didn’t cotton onto,” McGlone says, “was precisely why. What don’t lonely people get? Touch!” Gentle touch, in particular, releases neurochemicals such as oxytocin and endogenous opioids that soften our pain and make us feel good. “Not orgasmic-good,” McGlone adds, “but comfortable. It’s a top-up that puts people in a reasonable mood state.”
This improved mood state owes itself to a single nerve fiber that has evolved to receive caresses: the C-tactile afferent. It lives beneath hairy stretches of skin, and likes to be gently stroked at the pace of three centimeters per second. “If you stroke faster or slower, they are less interested in responding,” he says. Once stimulated, messages are conveyed, at a languorous pace, to parts of the brain that regulate our emotions, social behavior, and sense of self. “These are homeostatic areas, which basically set our mood and well-being,” he says. During interminable bouts of physical distancing, we’re all deprived of gentle touch, and the “reasonable” mood state that it facilitates. “This nerve fiber is getting very lonely, I’m afraid!” McGlone says. “It needs to be stimulated.”
Any device that might help our touch-hungry nerve fibers would need to involve haptic technology. Haptics, the science of touch, emerged from experiments in the lab of the nineteenth-century German anatomist Ernst Heinrich Weber. Through experiments on himself, his brother Eduard, and a number of pliable, unnamed subjects, including merchants, mathematicians, and “students of literature,” he laid the foundation for what we know about how the skin experiences sensations like pressure, weight, temperature, and pain. Some of these experiments were less than comfortable: he thwacked his thumb repeatedly with a hammer to investigate pain, and administered cold-water enemas to himself and two “good observers” as part of his explorations of the sensation of temperature.
Inventions in the field, however, date to a century later, at the start of the Cold War, when the Manhattan Project led to the development of a long mechanical arm that relayed tactile feedback to workers in nuclear plants, helping them manipulate radioactive waste with greater precision and control. Four decades later, the gaming and virtual reality boom of the 1990s—which later became known as “the epoch of the haptic interface”—gave us the most consequential consumer haptic device we have today. These were rumbling game pads that contained hardware that made them roll or shake in response to events on-screen. Today, through the ubiquity of these devices, as well as smartphones and fitness trackers, vibration is the haptic sensation most readily available to all of us.
As vital as social touch is, most haptic inventions have been largely for industrial use. One of the most influential haptic devices, the PHANToM, developed by engineers at MIT, measures the direction and force needed to manipulate virtual objects. It’s most commonly used as a training tool for dentists, knee surgeons, veterinary students, and by aerospace engineers to develop new aircraft designs.
Researchers who study digital touch technologies point to numerous reasons most inventors steer clear of social touch. It’s hard to measure how well a social touch device works—much harder than analyzing an assembly line process—on top of which, they’re hard to manufacture with any sort of consistency. Since prices don’t scale down, most products aren’t likely to become commercially viable. And so the gadgets that inspire the most overheated headlines at haptics conferences never actually make it to market. And while haptic technologies can produce a range of sensations—vibration, pressure, and temperature—existing devices can deploy only a single sensation at a time. They either exert pressure, change temperature, or, most commonly, vibrate. Trying to create the combined softness, weight, warmth, texture, and pressure of fingers brushing against skin with this limited sensorial repertoire is like being commissioned to make a presidential portrait when you’re equipped with nothing but a fingertip and a splotch of paint.
With the coronavirus forcing us to conduct our personal and professional lives virtually, might remote touching finally go from oxymoron to reality? We are all now where Tuovinen was back in that Dublin pizzeria, counteracting our loneliness and flagging enthusiasm with too much wine as we try to coax intimacy and connection out of audiovisual applications seemingly designed to foreclose such possibilities. A number of inventors, including Tuovinen, are hastening to change this. When the next pandemic wave hits, each is hoping that theirs is the device we’ll use to add something that conjures a hug, kiss, or a caress to all our enervating video calls.
SPECTRAL HUGS AND KISSES
On a video call in April 2020, two months into pandemic isolation, Tuovinen speaks to me from the office of JoyHaptics, in Helsinki. It’s a brightly lit space with green walls, and every available surface appears to be strewn with teddy bears. Sporting a short-sleeved, blue-checked shirt, and with his air of irrepressible mirth, he seems like the life of the office party. He has a tendency to answer questions with quips, many of which were likely tested during his weekly meetings with a local improv comedy troupe over the past few years. I ask how old he is, and he replies: “I concluded I must be at least thirty-four, because my oldest daughter is thirty-four, and it’s very unlikely that I traveled at the speed of light.” (He is sixty.)
I ask how he describes himself to people he meets, and he says, “Sometimes I say I’m a neuro-sexual. Do you know what that is?” I shake my head no. “A person who thinks the most attractive sexual part is the organ under the heavy hair.” “The brain?” “I don’t know—you might have thought of something else!” he says, grinning. I ask if he sees himself as an inventor or an engineer, and he mock-admonishes me for trying to put him in a box. “What I am,” he continues, “is a technology freak, a nerd, who is extremely interested in people and in interactions.”
When Tuovinen was seven years old, he believed he wanted to be “an electric man”—inspired by an electrician uncle. Or, failing that, a priest. “Half my family is priests,” he says with a laugh. “My sister, my sister’s husband… What I’ve noticed is people in our family strongly believe in something.” He soon found what he believed in: making gadgets and helping people. When he was ten, he devised a master key for all locally available piggy banks, which he sold to his friends for fifty cents each. (“Sometimes you need to save; sometimes you need to spend money on candy,” he says.) By age twelve, he had invented a robotic arm. As a teenager, he cobbled together a switch-operated mechanical device that hoisted a learner’s permit sign in the back window of their two-door station wagon.
Tuovinen considers himself the spiritual heir to his great-grandfather Erik Luoto, who was a metalsmith in a village a hundred miles east of Helsinki. He worked for a shipping company, sending logs by river to a paper factory. He built his own tools, which he used to fix the spokes, sledges, and clocks in the village. He built his own wooden cottage, which Tuovinen inherited. It’s more than a hundred years old, but it stands perfectly straight. As someone who also works with his hands, making wooden furniture or customized household gadgets such as a six-wheeled snow excavator, Tuovinen admires the evident pride his ancestor took in his work. “I never met him, but I feel very close to him,” he says. “My path remains the same. If there’s a problem, I build my own solution.”
Unlike most inventors in the haptics space, who are constrained by modest budgets from universities, Tuovinen has received generous funding for his experiments. He’s had a total budget of $588,000, through a range of sources that span private investors in Europe and Asia and grants from several agencies that fund innovative start-ups. It has afforded him a lengthy four-year runway, paved with fifty prototypes. He walks me through a few of them. First is an orange pyramid with different knobbly surfaces. It’s a patented haptic switch to turn lights on and off using the sensation against your fingertips. In its next iteration, it turned softer and more pillowy. It then became a C-shaped cushion that looked like a rumbling hand massager. Then came a collection of bracelets with black dials designed to send and receive various touch gestures. One bracelet’s dial moved from side to side; another created a squeezing sensation; another rotated. Tuovinen tried combining and amplifying these sensations, making dials that vibrated in three places, using something called an eccentric rotating mass motor. (A similar bit of machinery causes our smartphones to vibrate.)
In 2017, Tuovinen had what felt like a breakthrough. This came in the shape of two faceless off-white figurines, reminiscent of under-baked gingerbread men, with stubby arms that either swayed or vibrated. He realized that this puffy “character,” as he called it, could function as a proxy for a living person. When he tested out both versions, people overwhelmingly preferred the sensation of swaying. So he retained that feature and experimented with the form.
The gingerbread man was replaced by a brown dog with a knubbly tail, then a furry teddy bear and a sleeker, furless version. This last one felt right. Everyone had pleasant associations with teddy bears and knew they were meant to be hugged. But Tuovinen wanted the bear to signal that it was a high-end communication device—a “smart-bear.” So he hired the product designer Tapani Jokinen, who designed the Nokia 3310, the beloved “brick” phone from the early 2000s. Jokinen first proposed a bouncy upright bear resembling The Jungle Book’s Baloo, then a bear with a kangaroo pouch for a smartphone.
Finally, he came up with the final avatar, which Tuovinen now calls the iXu bear (pronounced “eek-su,” a homophone of the Finnish slang for “I miss you”). He holds it up to the camera, declaring, “This is Teddy Bear 2.0!” It’s a foot-long furless bear with a seal-like face, whose limbs splay out like a starfish’s. A proprietary swiveling device is tucked into its shoulder, allowing its arm to move smoothly. (The gingerbread man’s arm moved in a stabbier, more abrupt manner, which produced, he said, “a strong alien effect.”) The device functions a bit like a furry walkie-talkie. It works best in pairs. Picture this: You’re stuck in New York. Your girlfriend is in London. Both of you have the mobile app on and fully charged smart-bears cradled against your chests. You stroke the back of your bear. Sensors capture the pressure of your fingertips and the speed at which they move. This haptic information would be conveyed, via Bluetooth and your 3G or 4G connection, to your girlfriend’s bear in London, upon which her bear’s arm would sway against her shoulder. (Caresses can also be sent directly from your smartphone by swiping across the screen.)
Tuovinen hoists the bear up to his chest and demonstrates. “Now it looks you in the eyes,” he says, gazing down fondly. “You hold it; it feels good…” He swipes across an interface on an app on his smartphone, and the bear’s paw starts to gently stroke his arm, at precisely three centimeters per second. “It’s a nice, gentle, dynamic caress,” he says. “Not the dik-dik-dik of a windshield wiper.”
By the time of the next pandemic, Tuovinen hopes to have dispatched a battalion of smart-bears to comfort everyone sequestered at home by themselves. They’d each cost just under three hundred dollars—half the price of the average smartphone. He hopes they will be of solace especially to couples enduring separation, missing each other’s presence. They could watch movies together, holding an iXu bear in their arms. “When there’s a moving moment, they can send each other a touch,” he says.
Tuovinen is convinced he’s hit upon the winning formula for a haptic communication device. As far as he is aware, nothing better exists. The closest contender on the market is the Dutch Hey Bracelet, which can send and receive light squeezing sensations by way of a greeting. Tuovinen, who tested out the bracelet idea and swiftly discarded it, is not convinced it will ever take off. “When I see one, I can’t think, That’s my wife,” he says. The iXu bear, on the other hand, serves as a cuddly proxy. “When you have the bear in your arms, you can imagine: Oh yes, this is my loved one,” he says.
An advertisement for Tuovinen’s smart-bear features his ideal clients—a long-distance couple. A brunette reclines on her bed, eyes closed, with the bear on her chest. On a bed far away, her bearded beau strokes his bear’s back. As the music soars, the two close their eyes and imagine holding each other close, as both bears’ arms squiggle away. It’s a scene that’s reminiscent of a Black Mirror episode: a bold reenvisioning of how technology might bring us together that also seems a little silly and over-the-top. A satirical vision that somehow also looks uncannily familiar.
By the time Tuovinen had the lonely epiphany that produced his stroking smart-bear, two precursors had already paved the way for its existence: a shirt that conjures hugs, and a gadget that plants kisses. In 2014, Hooman Samani, a robotics engineer at National Taipei University, built a pair of handheld plastic robotic devices designed to transmit and receive “tele-kisses.” He named it the Kissenger—a portmanteau of kiss and messenger.
On a Skype call from his office in Taipei, Samani tells me that his kiss-dispatcher was born out of a purely theoretical interest in the field of lovotics—a portmanteau of love and robotics—a field he founded in 2009. He is a lanky, curly-haired man of Iranian origin, whose flat, self-serious affect seems impervious to the distinct absurdity of some of the things he describes. “I was interested in human-robot love relationships, stuff like that,” he says. “But when I did user studies, and asked people about their expectations of robot behavior, the first thing they said was: ‘Can I kiss my robot?’”
The question struck him as odd, but it got him thinking. “Kissing a robot is a strange idea,” he says. “So I thought, How about using the robot as an interface instead of directly kissing it?” His first kissable interface resembled a combination rabbit-pig, on whose nose you could plant a kiss or receive one. But he wasn’t sure it worked. “It would have been very creepy to kiss the lips of a rabbit and a pig,” he explains. “So we decided it must be something that nobody knows what it is.” That is just as good an explanation as any for the present design of the device: plastic alien-heads on stalks, with bionic eyes and distended scarlet lips.
Samani talks me through the tele-kiss. First, you’d mail one of these lippy aliens to your partner, then log on to the app together and place a video call. You’d both hold the alien up to your faces and place your lips upon it. Pressure sensors on its plastic lips would record the impression of yours and convey it through the internet. Moments later (bandwidths permitting), the lips of your partner’s alien would rumble against theirs. “It’s a basic sensation,” he says, a little apologetically. “It’s a kind of reminder.” As basic as it is, Samani says the worldwide lockdowns have led to a surge of interest in his alien kissers. Between 2016 and 2018, he sold a few hundred of them for the modest price of thirty-five dollars apiece. He hasn’t made any since. “Before, I would get a few emails on Valentine’s Day or Christmas Day,” he says. “Now requests and inquiries have tripled.”
Likewise, demand has been soaring for the HugShirt, a thin microfiber T-shirt containing tiny actuators—motors—that cause the cloth to “stroke” the skin remotely. The device was first designed in 2004, by Francesca Rosella and Ryan Genz, of the London-based smart-clothing firm CuteCircuit, whose inventions have been worn by the pop stars Katy Perry and Nicole Scherzinger. Rosella and Genz stopped manufacturing the Hug Shirt two years ago, but they now plan to bring it out of retirement. “Since these lockdowns started, I’ve gotten fifty messages from all sorts of random locations, saying, ‘We need the Hug Shirt back!’” says Rosella. Some of these messages have come from American families in hospitals, desperate to send remote hugs to sick relatives in COVID-19 wards. The new shirt will come with a retooled app, which includes the option of sending a prerecorded hug—the haptic equivalent of a voice note. “If you want to, you can now hug the whole world,” Genz says.
FROM NAFFNESS TO MEANING
You’d have to suspend some level of sensorial disbelief to construe the rumbling of a pair of plastic lips against yours as a kiss, a cotton top that undulates against your skin as a hug, or the swipe of a teddy bear’s paw as a caress. But virtual touching is an act of hopeful interpretation, of imaginative faith. It is willing yourself to transcend material limitations; to personify plastic; to be embraced by an absence, a ghost. It is a contradiction in terms. It is an act that must be executed fleshlessly and unself-consciously. The question remains: Will the ongoing crisis of touch inspire people to embrace these awkward, occasionally funny-looking experiments in pseudo-touch?
A media historian at South Carolina’s College of Charleston, David Parisi, whose research delves into “the past, present, and future of touching,” thinks people might be more willing to give these experiments a chance if they were more affordable. At present, remote hugs, whether borne by smart-bears or shirts, cost far too much for devices that are not commonly used or known to be worthwhile. “It’s tricky to hit a moving target,” he tells me on a Zoom call, in which he appears against a backdrop featuring a fire-tinged portal. “Does physical distancing make the need for distanced touch so much more pressing that it could increase the appeal of these touch-surrogacy products? Or do they not present good-enough replacements to justify their costs?”
To Parisi, the present moment recalls the late 1980s, when people were reluctant to place long-distance phone calls as they found them too expensive. Around then, the telephone company AT&T devised its “Reach out and touch someone” campaign. Its advertisements tried to convince users that the long-distance calls were so clear, they functioned like sonic teleportation, placing you in a distant loved one’s presence—which made them entirely worth the exorbitant cost.
Carey Jewitt, a researcher on social touch at University College London, is more optimistic. From what she’s seen, people definitely want such inventions to exist. They want to be able to “reach through the screen.” And they certainly crave “a more sensorial experience” than audiovisual applications currently give them. She concedes that most haptic prototypes are pricey and tacky—she prefers the charming Briticism naff—but she’s still struck by how eager people are to “make meaning out of them.” “They may not be very inviting. They may be too unstable for real-world use, and they don’t capture what we want,” she says. “But each of these inventions is still doing something important,” she says. “They’re pushing the boundary, preparing the marketplace for these kinds of applications, and making you think differently about touch.”
Jewitt’s lab, IN-TOUCH, has held workshops featuring a number of haptic devices, including the Kissenger and sensor-laden gloves that resemble oven mitts. At a recent interactive exhibit, a visitor was asked to interpret the warmth of a glove as if it were a message from a faraway friend, which she did effortlessly. She said, “I could feel the warm temperature and I thought she needed to tell me, Cheer up!” Another glove-wearer said, of their distant touch-dispatching friend, “He seems to know what I’m thinking, so I guess sending a message wouldn’t be that hard.”
From Jewitt’s experiments, remote touch seems clearly most effective within the context of an existing relationship, so users can fill in tactual sensations with memories of prior experiences. A promising bit of news for inventors who wish to cater to lovers is that they are exceptionally well suited to making meaning with crude inventions. In one recent study, two participants worked together on a guessing game. One of them turned a haptic knob that made a video game controller rumble in the other partner’s lap. Meanwhile, the recipient of these sensations was tasked with interpreting their emotional content—to determine if the sender was delighted, angry, unhappy, or relaxed. Pairs who were romantically involved guessed each other’s emotional states with the highest accuracy, above the probability of chance. This poses a curious question: If lovers are their most eager, best-suited constituents, why do inventors restrict themselves to anodyne expressions of affection? When so much of courtship and romance has already shifted to online, why don’t haptic engineers help us become better-equipped virtual voluptuaries?
In the 1990s, virtual contact—and congress—seemed not just possible but imminent, especially if you lived in California. Magazines like Future Sex and Mondo 2000 portrayed a permissive cybersexual utopia that embraced body modification, bondage, and all manner of kink. In the shadow of the AIDS crisis, these magazines dreamed up safe, transportive sorts of hedonism that aimed to break down every conceivable barrier—class, race, distance, gender, sexuality, and even humanness. Howard Rheingold, a pioneering writer and thinker on virtual communities, anticipated an “erotic telepresence” technology “undreamt of by pre-cybernetic voluptuaries” that would permit you to reach out and touch anybody, anywhere. The ubiquity of “teledildonics,” he declared, would completely redefine the meaning of Eros. He saw a future in which “genital effectors” (sensor-laden prosthetics) could make the act of shaking hands erotic, and virtual guises could make everyone look and feel “as nubile and virile as everyone else.”
Many wild possibilities rubbed up against one another in the pages of these magazines: cyber–tantric sex through mind machinery that melded lovers’ brain waves, virtual dominatrix girlfriends, even robot sex. One Future Sex feature from 1992, titled “Cybersex,” declared that in the future, “Carnal Knowledge Engineers” would design a whole armamentarium of gear to facilitate rapturous, realistic “tele-sex.” We would have bodysuits covered in sensor-laden membranes that could “digitize and record sensual and sexual touching.” We would have helmets wired to brain-feeds. We’d have tactile gloves, and shockproof, fully washable genital prosthetics—called G-Units. And most important, we’d have a capacious internet bandwidth to make all of it possible. By 2020, the article said, we’d all be having fifth-generation cybersex in an “orgasmatron”—a souped-up sex-tech system that facilitated “a very realistic simulation of great proportions that challenges real experience.”
That’s what Trudy Barber decided to build for her final-year undergraduate art project at Central Saint Martins in London that same year, 1992. In a conversation over Skype, she describes the project with a rapturous, toothy grin. “There was a black corridor you walked through, and there were naked people standing behind rubber sheeting, with tubes attached to their heads. So you could touch them without touching them,” she says. You then found yourself inside the world’s first VR sex-themed environment: a room with flashing lights, reverberating with loud moans. A joystick let you manipulate the projections before you. “There was a male body with an erection, which could be as big as you wanted,” she says, miming something toppling over her. “There was a Venus de Milo, there was a flying dildo and a flying condom… all in big, chunky, colorful pixels,” she says. “The idea was, you had to catch the flying condom and put it on the virtual stiffie.”
Barber felt certain that her immersive sex environment was the “beginning of something,” but today that virtual stiffie appears to be detumescent. Instead of orgasmatrons around every corner, we have a handful of so-called “smart vibrators” that tend to steal your intimate data without your consent.
For a moment in the mid-2010s, an adult entertainment company devised a way to deliver remote blow jobs. It got a crew of engineers to encode sensations onto pornographic films, which were delivered to users via a haptic sock slipped over their penis. When the user connected the device to their computer via USB and ran the video, they could feel the sensations they saw. What was most unusual about the device was that it delivered three haptic sensations at once: vibration, pressure, and temperature. But the engineers abruptly got mired in a patent dispute and were never heard from again. “It seemed like it had staying power,” says Parisi, with a tinge of regret. “And from all accounts, it seemed to work better than anything since.”
Today, if there is a distinct paucity of gear for a fun weekend of long-distance sex, it’s because nobody in Silicon Valley, or the research institutions that feed it, is keen to fund such ventures. “If you go through everything submitted to the World Haptics Conference, you’ll never find a cybersex paper in there,” says Parisi. In his fifteen years of research in the field, he says, he’s witnessed strenuous amounts of “boundary policing.” “I find it interesting, exciting, to talk about cybersex, and I can do it in a sober way,” he says. “But it has this way of sucking all the air in the room.”
TINY JOLTS OF PAIN
When inventors refrain from creating, users get creative with what already exists. In the wilderness beyond academia and Silicon Valley research facilities, citizen experimenters in virtual touch gather, determined to wrest pleasure from found haptic objects. Before 2015, when the first virtual reality headsets were released, people called macrophiles—who fantasize about being squashed underfoot, flung around, and sat upon by giantesses—had contented themselves solely with Japanese anime pornography that depicted such scenarios. But the invention permitted independent developers to create immersive virtual reality experiences that allowed macrophiles to feel like they actually became the dizzyingly dwarfed inhabitants of their fantasies. The developers shared such videos for free, and excited macrophiles quickly spread the good news—and the links. Those with less-specific fantasies form communities of mutual concupiscent aid on platforms like Discord, where they troubleshoot one another’s software glitches and hardware hurdles.
Roboticist and engineer Kyle Machulis is the undisputed fairy godfather of such cyber-voluptuaries. For the past sixteen years, he has been dabbling in creative ways to control sex toys from afar. The results of his successful experiments in teledildonic software are freely accessible online, under the moniker Buttplug.io. The tools for virtual pleasure-seeking may be freely available, but not everyone can put them to use. “The hardware isn’t cheap, and it’s a steep climb to get the technological knowledge you’d need to use it,” he says. Teledildonics is already here, he likes to say (playing on William Gibson’s “The future is already here”), just unevenly distributed.
Not everyone would characterize Buttplug.io-enabled pursuits as pleasure-seeking. One of them involves extracting the yawing and thrusting motions from an adult video and channeling them into a vibrator, via a video game controller. Machulis recently pitched in with tech support for the cam model Riley Scarlett, who used his software to play a video game with her fans. “They played a racing game, and when they bumped their car into hers, a sex toy would vibrate,” he says, laughing. “It provides a way for them to interact with her that’s not exhibitionist, not objectifying, and not purely monetary.”
Machulis’s impish disruptions invite us to consider the present absurdity of cybersexual pursuits. “Think about it this way,” he says. “We can replay in our heads what we see from [pornographic] movies, and when we try to re-create it in digital form, all we have is a piece of plastic that shakes!” What makes it especially tricky, Machulis says, is the lack of an imaginative scaffolding for how remote sex should play out, something to help us know what we should expect and how we should behave. Most digital tools we deploy for pleasure-seeking are designed based on how we act in a specific physical environment. The swiping you do on a dating app like Tinder conjures your eyes scanning a darkened bar for prospects; cam rooms, where models pleasure themselves on camera (as long as remote audiences shell out Bitcoin), are inspired by strip clubs. No space, so far, can be used as a framework to convene a long-distance sex tryst. “That makes it incredibly hard,” says Machulis. “You’re trying to use technology to create the feeling of being in someone’s most intimate space, and you’re doing it without all the other aspects of nonverbal communication.”
Most of us are ill-served by existing haptic technology, which does not facilitate the naturalistic, rhythmic, and responsive stroking we’d need for authentic remote sex. Existing haptic technology can, however, facilitate sharp jolts of pain. This makes it of keen interest to the BDSM community. Machulis notes that some of its brave members have taken to wearing Bluetooth-controlled chastity cages on their penises. “Whether or not that’s a good idea is another thing,” he adds.
It certainly seems to work. Remote pain and its anticipation have their places within long-standing BDSM conventions and rituals. Barber, the creator of the first VR orgasmatron, recalls being invited to a party sometime in the late-1990s in London. She entered a darkened room, its walls covered with TV screens showing “tacky bondage films.” Someone handed her a remote control. She pressed a button, and then another, expecting the images around her to change. “I thought, Nothing’s happening!” she says. “And then I hear someone squeaking: ‘Ow! Ow!’” The squeaks were issuing from a cupboard close by. She threw the door open. “And there he was, all in gimp gear,” she recalls affectionately, of the man she had been repeatedly electrocuting. “And he said: ‘Thank you, mistress!’”
In a little town in Buckinghamshire, England, an engineer named Gary likes to invite hundreds of remote participants from around the world to administer electric shocks to his girlfriend, Kay. He’s cobbled together as many as forty “daft little devices” for these sessions, including electrode pads, a remote-controlled magic-wand massager, and even some dog shock collars, which Gary says are “vile machines” he’d never use on a dog. “But they’re fun for what we do!” His idea of fun is not the shock itself but the collective anticipation of the shock. The bigger the audience, the more exciting the experience.
Even those who have no intention of ever sticking their neck into a shock collar might have something to learn from Gary’s experiments in virtual shocking. They suggest that if we’re unself-conscious, adventurous, and a little playful, technologies of tele-touching may at least put pleasurable contact within our virtual reach.
LIKE A REAL TOUCH
In late May 2020, I speak to Jussi Tuovinen again. He tells me things are opening up in Finland. “It’s nice, because the hobbies are starting,” he says. Improvised comedy sessions on Zoom “didn’t feel so nice.” Any moment now, he anticipates that his smart-bears will be ready for mass production. They will soon go out into the world and help people touch one another from a distance.
Tuovinen is certain that nothing that presently exists touches people as meaningfully as his bears will eventually. To emphasize his point, he sends me a video of a visit he made to a senior center in Helsinki, just before the pandemic struck. An old woman with short, wispy gray hair holds a smart-bear in the crook of her arm. She nuzzles its nose with a forefinger and says, “How are you? Who are you?” “His name is iXu,” Tuovinen tells her. “You are an elegant teddy,” she says, stroking his chest with her forefinger. Tuovinen swipes a finger across his phone screen in the app’s interface, and the bear’s arm begins to sway against hers. She hugs the bear and caresses its foot. He asks her how it makes her feel. “It feels like a real touch,” she says. “It’s like a living thing. It feels nice, what it’s doing.”
Tuovinen took that encounter as proof-of-triumphant-concept. Controlled from afar, even if just a few paces away, the bear stroked a woman. Its touch felt real. It provided her comfort and companionship. To some, like Parisi, this moment prompts cautionary tales about the prohibitive price of long-distance telephone calls in the 1980s. But Tuovinen thinks the more salient parallel is an even earlier moment in telecommunications history. He is reminded of the “strange and revolutionary time” at the turn of the twentieth century when the first telephones began to transmit voices along wires. The New York Times, introducing the device to its readers in 1874, marveled that such an “extraordinary electro-physiological phenomenon” was even possible. But for many years, they didn’t quite see how it could be of practical use to them. Writing in The New Yorker in 1933, Clarence Day recalled a moment, ten or fifteen years before, when his mother had so feared the apparatus’s noisome outbursts, that she “wouldn’t even touch the queer toy.” But gradually, telephones were installed in drugstores, livery stables, large markets, and grocery stores. And the more ubiquitous it became, the more familiar it became—and the more useful it could be.
For an entirely new technology to be embraced as useful and meaningful, it must first make the journey from strange to commonplace. But it is unclear whether anything can accelerate that process. The deprivations of social distancing have taught us to wrest connection from apps that are not designed to facilitate it. We invite our close friends to watch movies in our presence, leaving our Skype or Google Hangout windows ritualistically open. Once-dormant WhatsApp group threads sempiternally crackle to life with tales (lavishly illustrated) of culinary achievements and reckless roommates, immersing us in lives unfolding in distant rooms. We’re slowly, awkwardly learning new ways to let the flutter of the heart emoji compensate for the fluttering of the fingers, psychically scooching over into the felt-near space of those we hold dear. Could these new behaviors compel us to slowly, tentatively embrace the possibility of a caress from a loved one, mediated by the slithering of cloth or a teddy bear’s swaying arm? Exploring these possibilities might mean fording not just a physical divide but rather a symbolic one. I am not sure that we are prepared to accept disembodied gestures in place of the real thing, no matter how much we miss it. But every new invention brings such a future within our grasp. “I have a gut feeling,” Tuovinen says. “Remote touch will soon become a part of our lives.”