In 2012, Massachusetts Institute of Technology student Melissa Kit Chow co-created a wearable social media vest that would hug you each time someone liked one of your posts on Facebook. The Like-a-Hug project, part of MIT Media Lab’s Tangible Media Group, inflated like a lifejacket to simulate a hug. It also allowed the recipient to send back a hug by squeezing their own vest.
In 2020, we need hugs from our social media platforms and digital technologies more than ever before. Without the typical rejuvenating feeling that comes from eye contact, handshakes, hugs, and just overall presence with other people, we’re left searching for digital tools that can fill a gaping void. Instead of feeling emotionally satisfied by our tools, though, we have the hollow feeling that comes from an endless string of anodyne video conferencing calls. Hoping for a facsimile of the visceral connection we can feel from an energetic coffeehouse chat, we instead are met with distracting background sounds, interrupted connections, and far too many instances of someone shouting, “You’re on mute!” I have personally switched many of my video calls to the telephone. Like many people, I’m burnt out from the hollowness of yet-another-video-chat and decided to move over to the trusty, old phone call.
As social beings, we are in desperate need of presence, emotional depth, and human touch. VR and AR enthusiasts have touted these technologies’ ability to deliver just those qualities for years. So far, though, it has yet to affect everyday interactions. Meanwhile, Zoom or Google Meet work extremely well as a supplement to in-person interactions, but they seem utterly inadequate as replacements. So where are the digital tools to meet our emotional needs?
Being Connected Is Not the Same as Feeling Connected
COVID-19 has offered us the chance for a major reset in our relationship with technology. Before COVID destroyed our ability to have in-person interactions, much discussion revolved around “screentime.” Everyone had different ideas about the ideal amount of time to spend looking at screens and being online. This debate instantly became antiquated when COVID shut down most personal interactions and forced us to connect virtually. Instead of an occasional luxury, our online connectivity transformed into a lifeline. Since we need human connection to survive, that puts greater pressure on digital tools to serve as our source of connection. Being connected is not the same as feeling connected, however. To be connected online is technical, while feeling connected online is emotional. Right now, many of us can easily connect with our friends, family, and colleagues online, but the experience doesn’t leave us feeling more connected with them.
Speaking to the Guardian about the Like-a-Hug project back in 2012, co-developer Melissa Kit Chow said that the wearable social media vest would allow people to “feel the warmth, encouragement, support or love that we feel when we receive hugs.” Given our current inability to give hugs outside of intimate relationships, technology that allows us to share touches would help fill the emotional deficit caused by online-only interactions. Foreshadowing the limitations of video conferencing software that many of us so acutely feel right now, Chow mentioned that the impetus behind the invention was solving those limitations: “We came up with the concept over a casual conversation about long-distance relationships and the limitations of video chat interfaces like Skype. The concept of telepresence arose, and we toyed with the idea of receiving hugs via wireless technology.”
Conveying some form of human touch has long been a desire of digital platforms. Back when Facebook was still Thefacebook in 2004, an early feature was the poorly named and oft-ridiculed Poke. The Facebook Poke, which has continued to be a feature on the platform, has long been derided for being a creepy form of flirting or just plain confusing as to proper protocol. (Do you poke back? What did the person mean by poking me?) Although the feature never resonated with users, the underlying sentiment was clear. We need something more visceral than scrolling and staring. People living online still require the feeling of touch and connection, and poking someone offers a certain visualization of touch. Continuous virtual conversation without any form of touch has a hollowness to it.
Why Do All Online Interactions Feel the Same?
Touch generally connotes a high comfort level and close relationship with another person. For example, a warm friendship often involves a hug or handshake and half-hug whereas an acquaintance or newly met individual would typically receive a handshake. Someone you don’t know at all, perhaps on the other side of the room, would merely be noted visually without an exchange of touch. Although this scheme seems obvious, it becomes illustrative when we juxtapose our previous offline interactions with our current online interactions. Every interaction — no matter if it’s with a close friend, acquaintance, or an unknown individual — feels the same. This lack of differentiation is disorienting and points out the limitations of our current video conferencing experiences.
In other words, if we can’t physically shake hands for the foreseeable future, where is the online equivalent? If we can’t hug for many months to come, what digital tools are going to fill this emotional need? Right now, we need online interactions to offer far greater nuance, allowing us to experience a different level of visceral feeling the closer our relationship is. An interaction with a close friend should feel vastly different from a conversation with an acquaintance. In the offline world, we use the level of touch to correlate with our relationship’s level of intimacy. The challenge for technologists is to create this same level of complexity for our online interactions.
Where Are We Headed?
The current upheaval COVID-19 has wrought provides a once-in-a-lifetime moment to reflect on what is working well and what is lacking with the technology we depend on so heavily. People used to discuss whether we need more or less technology in our lives. That narrative has evolved to focus on needing more from our technology. We need our digital tools to be emotionally satisfying, especially since they are often our online interactions are our only interactions during the day. We need more feeling from our technology because we have such a lack of human contact right now in our lives. Given that nearly all of our interactions today are digital, we are rightly expecting more feeling and depth from these tools.
Personally, I see the future headed toward increased haptic feedback, which involves the simulation of touch. This is a future I welcome, as it moves virtual experiences closer to real-world ones. As it currently stands, most of our technology uses only two (sight and sound) of the five basic senses. Adding touch, which is the first sense that we develop in utero, is a natural evolution. Touch is linked to feelings of well-being, trust, and compassion. As humans, we cannot have a world without touch. Our current limitations on in-person gatherings have made our lack of touch more pronounced and the need for technological solutions more important.
Thankfully, haptic feedback is already a technology many of us use daily. We may be used to the subtle vibrations that emanate from their smartphones (i.e., virtual keyboard) and video game consoles, but this technology could be extended to add greater depth to a multitude of online interactions. For example, the TESLASUIT is a full-body wearable tech suit that uses subtle touch sensations to provide a more realistic experience from AR or VR. Likewise, the TactSuit by bHaptics is a haptic suit that makes the action from gaming feel realistic. But these technologies should not stay in the domain of gaming and performance development — we need touch in our everyday interactions. Imagine the sensation of a handshake at the start of a meeting, or the feeling of a hug to close out a talk with a friend. Picture a future where compassion can be conveyed through the screen because our interactions are not just limited to our voice and image.
Complex problems can often be boiled down to basic human needs. People desire knowledge, touch, friendship, laughter, and love. The rise of social media was due to its providing us with an endless supply of knowledge, laughter, and friendship. But right now what we need, more than anything, is the feeling of touch. We are touching our technology endlessly right now as it provides an essential window into the lives of colleagues, friends, and significant others. But we long for more than sight and sound. Sooner or later, that technology is going to touch us back.