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Touching friends, lovers and the dead with virtual reality
by Thomas McMullan | Jun 19, 2017 | Comment Now
Haptic bodysuits and “sensory” VR promise a digital world of touch – even with the dead.
Touching friends, lovers and the dead with virtual reality

The area beneath the hotel is low-ceilinged, the air heavy with the smell of cheap coffee. After a struggle past the other conference attendees, past stalls and screens, I find myself standing in front of a mannequin, decked in a leather outfit, blindfolded by a virtual-reality headset. A sign reads: “Teslasuit. Experience Real Life”.

Fitted with 46 haptic sensors, 14 motion-capture sensors, and an onboard climate-control system, the Teslasuit is designed to be an all-body virtual-reality ensemble. Built with black rubber plates, it looks like something that sells with a ball gag. At the VRX Europe expo, attendees gather around it, eyelids akimbo.

The makers of the haptic suit claim, somewhat like a character in a Philip K Dick novel, that it will let you “enjoy incredible real world sensations as never before”. If there is a warm rain in your virtual world, for example, or a cold wind, the suit can apparently adjust its temperature (between 10 and 40°C). If an object hits you, the suit’s haptic points will mimic the impact. If someone touches you, the suit is supposed to stimulate your corresponding muscle groups.

(Above: The Teslasuit)

“This device is one of the connecting links between digital media and the human body,” Denis Dybsky, marketing director for Teslasuit, later tells me. He explains that the suit was developed with “hardcore gamers” in mind, as the next logical step from virtual-reality headsets; where digital worlds aren’t just experienced, but inhabited. Is this something people want? Personally, no. It sounds like a nightmare. But Dybsky explains that Teslasuit’s aims extend far beyond gaming, into a world where social networks have fully embraced virtual reality.

“People will be more inclined to apply VR devices within social networks if interaction is close to the level of the real world,” he says. “Handshakes, hugs, the ability to touch objects, to feel their shape and mass, are the necessary attributes of interaction in virtual worlds. Almost all of this is impossible without a tactile component.”

In its marketing material, the Teslasuit is pictured on the bodies of a man and a woman, blindfolded by VR headsets but touching hands. The tips of their fingers press against the others’, a violet glow emanating from the space between. The scene is devoid of sexual tension, closer to shopfront mannequins than virtual foreplay, but it inevitably pushes my mind in that direction. With a “tactile component” like the Teslasuit, could users one day feel the warmth of a loved one even if they are on opposite ends of the Earth? Regardless of whether it’s technically possible, do people even have the desire to get physical in unreal places?

Mark Zuckerberg seems to think so. Well, maybe not with sex, but at least with platonic soirées. The Facebook boss recently unveiled his company’s plans for Spaces, a foray into VR social media. Using an Oculus Rift, users can bring an avatar of themselves into a shared, virtual world. It’s a nascent project, but gives an early indication of how our bodies could be brought into digital arenas. There is no haptic element, no hugging, no hand grazing, no sex, but all of Spaces’ activities are centred on physical actions. You can gesture with your arms. You can use your hands to draw, or play noughts and crosses. You can use a virtual selfie stick to take pictures of your virtual friends. It’s easy to imagine the extension of this; the implied physicality becoming actual.

"... could users one day feel the warmth of a loved one even if they are on opposite ends of the Earth?"

 

“People want to be inside of something, and they want to be social within that space,” says Frank Soqui, general manager of Intel’s VR and Gaming group. “You've got to make it more real for them. You've got to make it more visceral for them.”

Speaking to Soqui at the same conference as Teslasuit’s exhibition, I'm told that, from Intel’s perspective, physicality will very much be part of virtual reality’s future. He lists off a number of features that will be part of what he describes as “sensification”, from eye tracking and speech control to body haptics that translate physical contact. He even mentions smell: “I don't want to smell zombies, but maybe I want to smell other things.”

During our conversation, Soqui taps my shoulder. “If I could do that to your avatar and you felt it, you'd suspend disbelief that you're by yourself,” he says. “All you need is a bit of haptics to do that.” Creating an illusion of intimacy could be haptics' great achievement. But Soqui suggests that the technology could go much further than touching distant shoulders. With a piece of technology capable of convincingly fooling the senses, the things you interact with don’t necessarily need to exist in the real world. They could be fictional. They could be deceased.

Meeting the dead

“Interacting with people that are either dead or alive in a visceral way,” says Soqui. “It's not really them, but it's a construct of them. You're going to have a different type of interaction now... If you could shake [a dead person’s] hand because there are haptics, that would be cool.”

Video games such as Forza Motorsport 5 are already able to learn from a player’s racing style, then create a computer-controlled “drivatar” that can compete in place of the human driver. Could a believable avatar of a person be made from their virtual-reality interactions? Could a system learn a person’s ticks and tendencies towards certain body movements? With haptic technology, could you feel the touch of that avatar long after the actual person has departed? It’s an unsettling thought.

In the short term, Intel is already making moves to blur the lines between what is real and fictional. Last year the company revealed its prototype headset, Project Alloy. Unlike other virtual-reality devices, the “mixed reality” of Alloy works by scanning a user’s physical surroundings and bringing real objects into a digital environment. A user’s hands, for example, or living-room sofa, might find itself imposed onto a virtual spaceship. The aim is to merge the two worlds, so that – on a basic level – a user can walk around a VR space without tripping over furniture.  

There’s a big conceptual gap between tripping over chairs and embracing dead friends. Nevertheless, technology like Project Alloy and Facebook’s Spaces are all on the carpet edge of something that has the scope to span the next hundred years of human interaction. We are sensory beings, living through bodies that touch, smell and taste. It's natural that we crave a communication that brings in our skin, along with our eyes and ears. And if we can do that for real bodies, what’s to stop us doing it for unreal bodies?

Whether that will translate on a practical level remains to be seen. For all its sensors and temperature panels, the Teslasuit is ultimately an unwieldy piece of kit for an area that has little in the way of software support. Like Nintendo’s Power Glove, released in 1989, a science-fiction aesthetic doesn’t necessarily mean it’s useful on a day-to-day basis. That said, the company isn’t alone in delving into haptic bodysuits. AxonVR is similarly pushing a touch-heavy form of VR, with the help of mechanisms that lift the user in the air. These early ventures are unlikely to find themselves in living rooms, but they hint at a portion of the industry that believes headset-based VR is only the beginning.

A world where digital avatars stroke and grip would be, at best, confusing, at worst, a living nightmare

It’s worth remembering that our senses can be tricked, and a world where digital avatars stroke and grip would be, at best, confusing, at worst, a living nightmare. Will haptic suits and virtual hangout zones change the way we think about other humans? Will it fundamentally reshape our conception of reality? Perhaps. Perhaps not. For now, I’m following the smell of cheap coffee. That’s a sensation I can trust.



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