It’s easy to see why people think haptic feedback is a little bit creepy. We like our gadgets to be responsive to our touch, but typically we don’t want them touching us back. Still, there are some haptic features that are so mainstream we don’t even really think twice about them–our smartphones vibrating in our pockets, for one, or video game controllers shaking when our on-screen avatars are taking a beating. Melissa Chow’s Like-a-Hug–a vest that gives you a squeeze when a friend likes something of yours on Facebook–sits somewhere between harmless smartphone vibration and creepy gadget caress on the haptic spectrum. And that’s exactly the point.
Chow and the other students in Hiroshi Ishii’s Tangible Interfaces course in the MIT Media Lab were encouraged to experiment with haptic feedback and other tangible user experiences, feeling out where those elements might be useful and where they start freaking people out. “While the vest was done a bit tongue-in-cheek,” Chow told me, “we were interested in pushing existing boundaries, both technologically and in terms of social acceptance.”
The central question for the project, she explained, was “at what point does tangible media become uncomfortable for users?” But while an article of clothing that hugs you is a little strange in its own right, Chow and her collaborators, fellow students Andy Payne and Phil Seaton, were especially interested in the issues of real-world visibility raised by such an interface. “Though most of us might feel a nice touch of affirmation from someone ‘liking’ our status or photo on Facebook,” she said, “how much of that do we want expressed in our physical world?”
When you post something on Facebook, you want it to get attention. The more likes a status update gets the better. And, in general, people like to get hugs. The more hugs you get the better. But the Like-a-Hug explores how that seemingly foolproof equation can go wrong from both ends; Facebook attention might not be good when it’s made physical, not digital, and hugs might not be good when they’re coming from a high-tech piece of clothing, not a person.
In this respect, at its heart, Like-a-Hug makes us look at how our notions of modesty might differ between our online and real-world lives. Nobody feels like a jerk for getting a lot of wall posts on their birthday, and nobody gets embarrassed when their smartphone vibrates for every one of them. But when those warm sentiments are manifested in a more tangible way–tangible not only to you but the people around you as well–you might find yourself wishing for less birthday love.
That might be a “no duh” sort of conclusion, and it’s probably safe to say that there aren’t many people who will see the Like-a-Hug and think it’s the sort of thing they want in their life. But most gamers probably didn’t know they wanted a vibrating controller until the Rumble Pak came out, either. It’s hard to imagine that future generations of smartphones and social media sites won’t try to jump off the screen and interact with our bodies in more direct ways, and, to that end, the Like-a-Hug just points out some of the issues designers will have to be mindful of when they make that leap. It’s hard to imagine what a more sophisticated, socially acceptable haptic feedback system might look like, but here’s one thing I can say with certainty: I never want any gadget I own to “poke” me.