Recent developments in virtual reality have fuelled a renewed interest in touch’s capacity to be convincingly synthesized by computer interfaces. Full-body interfaces like the Teslasuit and bHaptics’ TactSuit project sensations from virtual worlds onto the bodies of their wearers; controller- and glove-based feedback systems such as the Tactical Haptics’ Reactive Grip and the HaptX Gloves target the hands as the primary site of haptic perception. Taken together, these systems offer the fulfilment of a longstanding promise of virtual reality: the elevation of the so-called neglected touch sense over and against the senses of seeing and hearing. However, each haptic system operationalizes touch according to its own distinct combination of hardware and software, embodying strategic decisions about the most effective and efficient means of productively harnessing the tactile senses. Consequently, these haptic interfaces do not merely reproduce touch, but instead actively transform it through a process of selecting which subset of tactile sensations a given interface configuration will synthesize. As I show by examining the decades-long history of haptic interface design, haptics engineers, in seeking to give touch new powers as an epistemic agent, have gradually and unwittingly reconstituted the sense of touch according to a set of mediatic and algorithmic logics.
David Parisi is an Associate Professor of emerging media at the College of Charleston. His new book Archaeologies of Touch: Interfacing with Haptics from Electricity to Computing (2018) engages in a media archaeological treatment of haptic human-computer interfaces that links their development to the histories of electricity, psychophysics, cybernetics, robotics, and sensory substitution. He is also co-editor, along with Mark Paterson and Jason Archer, of the Haptic Media Studies themed issue of New Media & Society.