“The technology of touch”

I have frequently blogged about haptics (notably prematurely declaring 2014 “the year of remote haptics”), which is certainly a coming thing, though I don’t think anyone really knows what to do with it yet.

A recent BBC report  “From yoga pants to smart shoes: The technology of touch”  brought my attention to a new product from down under, “Nadi X”, “fitness tights designed to correct your form”. Evidently, these yoga pants are programmed to monitor your pose, and offer subtle guidance toward ideal position via vibrations in the “smart pants”.

(I can’t help but recall a very early study on activity tracking, with the enchanting title, “What shall we teach our pants?” [2]  Apparently, this year the answer is, “yoga”.)

Source: Wearable Experiments Inc.
Source: Wearable Experiments Inc.

It’s not totally clear how this works, but it is easy to imagine that the garment can detect your pose, compute corrections, and issue guidance in the form of vibrations from the garment. Given the static nature of yoga, detecting and training for the target pose will probably work, at least for beginners. I’d be surprised if even moderately experienced practitioners would find this much help, because I don’t know just how refined the sensing and feedback really will be.  (I’m prepared to be surprised, should they choose to publish solid evidence about how well this actually works.)

Beyond the “surface” use as a tutor, the company suggests a deeper effect: it may be that this clothing not only guides posture but can create “a deeper connection with yourself”. I would interpret this idea to mean, at least in part, that the active garment can promote self-awareness, especially awareness of your body.

I wonder about this claim. For one thing, there will certainly be individual differences in perception and experience. Some people will get more out of a few tickles in their trousers than others do. Other people may be distracted or pulled away from sensing their body by the awareness of their garment groping them.

Inevitably, touch is sensual, and quickly leads to, well, sex. I’m too old not to be creeped out by the idea of my clothing actively touching me, especially under computer control. Even worse, when the computer (your phone) is connected to the Internet, so we can remotely touch each other via the Internet.

Indeed, the same company that created Nadi X created a product called “fundawear” which they say is, “the future of foreplay” (as of 2013).  Sigh. (This app is probably even more distracting than texting while driving….)

Connecting your underwear to the Internet—what could possibly go wrong? I mean, everything is private on your phone, right?  No one can see, or will ever know. Sure.

I’m pretty sure fundawear will “work”, though I’m less certain of the psychological effects of this kind of “remote intimacy”.  Clearly, this touching is to physical touching like video chat is to face to face. Better than nothing, perhaps, but most people will prefer to be in person.

Looking at the videos, it is apparent that the haptics have pretty limited variations. Only a few areas can buzz you, and the interface is pretty limited, so there are only so many “tunes” you can play. The stimulation will no doubt feel mechanical and repetitive, and probably won’t wear very well. Sex can be many things, but it shouldn’t become boring.

(As a historical note, I’ll point out that, despite their advertising claims, this is scarcely the first time this idea has ever been done. The same basic idea was demonstrated by MIT students no later than 2009 [1], and I’ll bet there have been many variations on this theme.  And the technology is improving rapidly.)

This is a very challenging and interesting area to explore. After following developments for the last decade and more, I remain skeptical about how well any sensor system can really communicate body movement beyond the most trivial aspects of posture.

My own observation is that an interesting source of ideas comes from the intersection of art and wearable technology. In this case, I argue that, if you want to learn about “embodied” computing, you really should work with trained dancers.

For example, you could do far worse than considering the works of Sensei Thecla Schiphorst, a trained computer scientist and dancer, whose experiments are extremely creative and very well documented [4].

One of the interesting points that I have learned from Sensei Thecla and other dancers and choreaographers, is how much of the experience of movement is “inside”, and not easily visible to the computer (or observer). I.e., the “right” movement is defined by how it feels, not by the pose or path of the body. Designing “embodied” systems needs to think “from the inside out”, to quote Schiphorst.

In her work, Schiphorst has explored various “smart garments” which reveal and augment the body and movement of one person, or connect to the body of another person.

Since those early says, these concepts have now appeared in many forms, some interesting, and many not as well thought out as Sensei Thecla.

  1. Keywon Chung, Carnaven Chiu, Xiao Xiao, and Pei-Yu Chi, Stress outsourced: a haptic social network via crowdsourcing, in CHI ’09 Extended Abstracts on Human Factors in Computing Systems. 2009, ACM: Boston, MA, USA. p. 2439-2448.
  2. Kristof Van Laerhoven and Ozan Cakmakci. What shall we teach our pants? In Digest of Papers. Fourth International Symposium on Wearable Computers, 2000, 77-83. http://tmg-trackr.media.mit.edu/publishedmedia/Papers/390-Stress%20OutSourced%20A%20Haptic/Published/PDF
  3. Thecla Schiphorst, soft(n): toward a somaesthetics of touch, in Proceedings of the 27th international conference extended abstracts on Human factors in computing systems. 2009, ACM: Boston, MA, USA. http://www.sfu.ca/~tschipho/softn_alt_chi.pdf
  4. Thecla Henrietta Helena Maria Schiphorst, THE VARIETIES OF USER EXPERIENCE: BRIDGING EMBODIED METHODOLOGIES FROM SOMATICS AND PERFORMANCE TO HUMAN COMPUTER INTERACTION, in Center for Advanced Inquiry in the Integrative Arts (CAiiA). 2009, University of Plymouth: Plymouth. http://www.sfu.ca/~tschipho/PhD/PhD_thesis.html

Bonus video: Sensei Thecla’s ‘soft(n)’ [3].  Exceptionally cool!


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