Should SenseX worry or dazzle society?

As Doctor Marianna Obrist dons her lab coat each morning at Sussex University, a view of the gently rolling hills of England’s South Downs offering  a calm distraction, SALLY WEBSTER asks: is she aware that her SenseX project could see people choose to waive a walk on the Downs and instead receive its outdoorsy freshness by lifting the palm of their hand up to a patterned mid-air haptic feed? 

Perhaps. But a five year stretch investigating this reality has only just begun and anyway, has not the issue of technology substituting manufactured experiences for real ones been at the heart of certain societal issues for years?

Parents watching their children sat at computer screen feeling enlivened, emotive and even scared because of engagement in a rugged life-like gaming platform would say yes.

Sussex University Press Officer James Hakner told Case Basket that at the project launch this April, Obrist received worldwide media coverage for the work that conveys human emotion by applying “short, sharp bursts of air to different areas of the hand”.

Press apparently focused strongly on the potential 9-Dimensional TV endpoint; Obrist, a Department of Informatics Lecturer, explained that SenseX might allow viewers to taste and smell as well as watch, touch, hear and ‘feel’. This capability rests on the use of Bristol’s U-Haptics product, described by UK’s International Business Times as ‘tactile technology that allows users to “feel in mid-air” by using an array of ultrasound speakers capable of invisibly replicating textures.’ Linking specific psychology to this product using experimental methods earned Obrist £1 million from the European Research Council.

The study used the U-Haptics system with three groups of participants. In a layered, controlled approach each group gradually matched scenery-related feelings to a specific intensity, position, direction and duration of stimulations to the hand. These patterns are reported to have evoked the feelings one would naturally see generated by say, a graveyard or a calm scenery with trees.

In so doing, Obrist has worked out that sad feelings are generated by slow stimulation of the outer palm and little finger; excitement can be manufactured by intense, short bursts of air to the thumb, index finger and middle palm area.

The University quoted the doctor as saying this template could be applied to mothers and babies, and to couples looking for ways to enhance long distance relationships. While the latter might excite some, can’t mothers and babies just have a good old fashioned cuddle and a play with some toys to generate happiness or love?

Speaking from her tour of the U.S this week, Obrist told me it was too early to provide Case Basket with specific answers to questions on ethics and medical application, “simply because we are just at the beginning of the project and I do not have the details.”

But what was encouraging was her declaration that ethics will be a key topic of consideration as things progress.

“We only now have the opportunity to explore touch, taste, and smell as interaction modalities due to the richer understanding of the human sensory system and the advancement of technology. I believe sensory based technology – multisensory technology and cross-sensory stimulation – can play an important role in the future if we can come up with meaningful designs and specific use cases. Ethical considerations and social or interpersonal implications will need to be addressed along [with] this process.”

The implications are certainly as frightening as they are entertaining. A scary movie now might give a child nightmares; if the ultra-virtual mid-air haptics are also pumping out sensations that tap into highly memorable olfactory and gustatory processing, will children struggle to forget such a deeply manufactured experience?

On a positive note, night-clubbers who can hold their hands up and receive happy-feeling haptic stimulation in a “one to many” communication might choose to forego notorious class A chemical substitutes if they are already touching nirvana.

It might be too soon for Dr Obrist to measure the need for concern here. But some parallel developments that use U-Haptics are already predicted to cause societal problems. Combining equipment like haptic suits and headsets such as Oculus Rift for gaming comes under the umbrella of ‘Transhumanism. This cyber-esque word means ‘a movement that aims to use technology to enhance human intellectual, physical, and psychological capabilities.’

Anders Sandberg, research fellow at the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University, happily calls himself a Transhumanist. But he is clear on what laws need to change to keep people safe in a world when real and damaging sensations can be imposed on another without requiring physical touch.

Sandberg told Australian publication Vertigo that criminal law is often slow to react to issues that arise as a result of technological advances and even used virtual sexual assault as a probable example.

“…It involves violating our ability to interact with the world in a sensual manner. It involves both coercion of bodies and inflicting a mental violation”.