The rise of new haptic feedback devices for virtual reality has prompted a wave of speculation about the possibilities of extending touch into virtual worlds, with a spate of popular press articles predicting that we are on the cusp of a widespread adoption of haptic gloves and bodysuits. The 2018 release of Steven Spielberg's Ready Player One, which featured a full-body haptic bodysuit prominently throughout the film, further fueled these speculations, as journalists compared the technology depicted in the film to the Teslasuit, a haptic bodysuit launched on Kickstarter in 2016 that uses electricity, vibration, and temperature to simulate tactile experience. However, this current obsession with touch technologies was preceded and foregrounded by earlier attempts at using technology to transform touch. Researchers in this earlier tradition sought to counter the visuality of twentieth century media systems by providing touch with its own set of tools for capturing, storing, and transmitting tactile experience.
In this talk, I explore the liberatory and utopian hopes mobilized around haptics, situating the present hype cycle as part of longer trajectory in the cultural life of technologized touching. My aim is to show how the successful proliferation of haptic interfaces requires not only the invention of new and increasingly complex forms of touch technology, but also—and perhaps more crucially—the cultural production of desire for haptics itself. Haptics companies, in advertising their products, seek to produce this desire for digital touch through a sustained critique of visualist interfaces that positions haptics as an ameliorative corrective to a purported crisis of touch.