There’s a horrific story about “Emperor Frankenstein,” or Frederick II, ruler of the Holy Roman Empire from 1220 to 1250. Recognized by historians as a masterful politician and bureaucrat, he was also allegedly a highly unethical social scientist. It is said that he once ordered a group of young infants to be raised without any human interaction (aside from the bare minimum of bathing and feeding). This so-called “language deprivation experiment,” intended to ascertain whether the children would learn to speak on their own, didn’t get far. The babies died, unable to survive without love or affection.
It’s unclear whether any of this ever actually happened, but in recent history, there have been plenty of kinder and gentler scientific studies devoted to human interactions and safe physical touch. It would seem science agrees with the classic saying — humans are indeed social creatures. But during the COVID-19 pandemic, even walking within six feet of a friend can be a safety hazard.
Tangible, a vest that’s sort of like a cross between a neck pillow and a weighted blanket, is trying to meet this moment. Dubbed a “teleportation kit” by its Stanford University graduate and student creators, Tangible allows you to send vibrations through the vest using an app on your phone. In this sense, you can imitate a tap on the shoulder, a hug, or a kiss from anywhere in the world while videochatting a partner.
It’s an extremely niche invention, one that joins a growing market of tech that’s trying to simulate human presence, though its founder and CEO, Akshay Dinakar, argues that there’s an important distinction between their product and other companies that might make machine-written mailers or AI-crafted text messages.
“We are not trying to recreate reality,” Dinakar says. “Reality is beautiful in itself.” Instead, Tangible sees itself as a “joyfully immersive way” to mirror the positive associations that come with safe physical touch. While wearing the vest, you aren’t getting an actual in-person hug. That much is very obvious. But the vest’s vibrations intend to induce the same kind of oxytocin response, making the distance between you and your loved ones less of a barrier.
“In this remote-first world, I wanted to create something that could help every grandparent living in a retirement facility who still can’t see their grandkids over distance without exposing themselves to COVID,” Dinakar says. “I wanted to create something that would let military parents feel like they can cuddle with their kids and read them a bedtime story from a thousand miles away.”
While the product is still in its beta-testing mode, it’s Dinakar’s hope that Tangible will have longevity even past the era of social distancing. It’s personal for him — Tangible is the sort of product Dinakar wished he had back in March, when his mother passed away from cancer at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Like so many families, Dinakar and his father were barred from visiting her hospital room out of safety concerns. It was a harrowing, isolating experience — one that goes down as one of the worst months of his life — and for the most part, Dinakar and his father had to endure it on their own.
“I wanted to be in that hospital room and feel like I could support my mom,” Dinakar says. “Or I wanted to be comforted by my friends.” But both options were impossible because of the coronavirus.
As COVID-19 progresses, it’s becoming clearer that “pandemic depression” or anxiety is going to deteriorate peoples’ mental health, in large part due to the added stress and uncertainty the coronavirus presents. But it’s also because we’re isolating ourselves for each others’ safety, and Zoom happy hours and Animal Crossing meet-ups have already lost their novelty. Being there for your friends and family over FaceTime isn’t the same as being there in person.
“If it was a solution that worked, we wouldn’t be sick of social distancing. Social media would have solved the problem,” Dinakar says. “But it doesn’t.”
Hopefully, Tangible will — that’s part of Dinakar’s “philosophical motivation” at the very least. It can be tricky walking that fine line between the uncanny valley and a feel-good product, but his objectives are very clear. Dinakar isn’t trying to enter the race to build the newest, “shiniest high tech.” Tangible is another communication medium to assist you and your loved ones. It’s not meant to replace the people in your life, or feed into the dystopia fear of dehumanization.
“You could build the world’s most complex robot, if you optimized all the variables, exactly replicating the physical sensation of what a hug feels like. And you could have that robot hug a hundred times a day, and you probably wouldn’t feel any better,” Dinakar says. “You probably have no incentive to ever want to own or buy that robot. It’d be a weird thing to have.”
Grace Z. Li covers arts, culture and food. firstname.lastname@example.org