Bodily contact from afar

Like-A-Hug sketch from designer Melissa Kit Chow

The Internet has been abuzz in the last couple days about this social media vest, though some have taken it as more technological and less artistic than the original intent.  PC Magazine has a good summary:

Scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have developed a vest that lets Facebook users hug each other, from any distance.

The fashionable technology, dubbed Like-A-Hug vest, is being touted as “wearable social media” – it inflates to embrace wearers whenever Facebook friends “Like” items they post on the network, according to the website of designer Melissa Chow.

She worked with Andy Payne and Phil Seaton at the MIT Media Lab to build the puffy black vests, which, according to Chow’s website, allows the wearer to “feel the warmth, encouragement, support, or love that we feel when we receive hugs.”

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about virtual embodiment lately and don’t want to write my capstone paper here on the blog, but consider this for a moment. There are a lot of reasons why someone may not be in physical proximity with those who could supply a needed hug.  Is the tactile sensation of “warmth, encouragement, support, or love” important? Could a product of this sort be therapeutic? I can’t help thinking of Harlow’s monkeys or Temple Grandin’s squeeze machine.

What does it mean when a machine takes the place of human contact? Continue reading