Wearable, haptic and multisensorial technological devices by Federico Giordano

                                       

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An extract from the chapter “’Touch me, Hit Me, Kill Me’! Wearable, Haptic and Multisensorial Devices as Tools for a New Bodily Spectatorship” of the book Body Images in the Post-Cinematic Scenario. The Digitization of Bodies (Milano-Udine, Mimesis International, 2018), edited by Alberto Brodesco and Federico Giordano.

Wearable, haptic and multisensorial technological devices represent a significant shift in how corporeal experiences may take place in the field of media, no longer exclusively addressed to the sense of sight, but engaging the whole system of human senses, modifying the conventional, dominant, eye paradigm. Such devices, which do not always immediately seem to have a narrative or communicative value, actually attest a new relation with the spectator’s body, as an element which becomes an integral part of the media product. The recent condition of the media landscape has been defined in many ways: post-media age, logic of convergence culture, space of the transmedia storytelling, or of the remediation or relocation of the contents, and again as digimodernism, or software culture. All these definitions, to which others might be added, express widely divergent views, but they share the same conception of a changed condition of the media landscape. Another group of definitions has been associated with the contemporary experience of the media: age of the grassroots production or prosumer era, fan cultures or participatory cultures age, time of the remix culture, epoch of the user experience design. In this case the emphasis is on the role of the spectator. The point is how s/he can be much more directly involved in the management of the media content, as opposed to what occurred in the past. This effect is determined both by a social issue – that is, a new way of making and using content – and by a technical matter: the interfaces (the supports that connect the body of the spectators to media) lend themselves to new ways of using these contents, which improve the interaction of the spectators, and expand the sensory dimension that they can use to receive these contents.

The spectator has an increased involvement because, thanks to new interfaces, her entire body is absorbed in the media product: a growing number of devices involves not only sight, but also touch, and other sensory dimensions. While in the academic debate such issues have been repeatedly discussed about so-called embodiment, with reference to the viewer’s involvement in the film, such an operation has probably been carried out incorrectly. The total body involvement feeling in cinema is deceptive and stimulated by products directed primarily to the visual use. The new technological devices show instead an authentic participation of the user’s entire body, in a physical sense, as well as cognitive, stimulating a concrete involvement, which, more pertinently than previously, can be defined as embodiment.

 The devices developed can fit into two main categories which we can define, on the one hand, as the tools that allow the reproduction of bodily sensations in a virtual environment, and on the other hand, as tools that enable an augmented interaction in the real world through digital devices. The apparatuses of the first type are the haptic suits that enable the body to perceive tactile sensations or temperature changes on the torso or on the legs; the devices which simulate the movement; the tools that allow us to experience the sense of the physical concreteness of the objects through a solicitation of the limbs; the technological devices that facilitate the perception of other feelings than the tactile or visual ones (auditory, olfactory).

The devices that belong to the second macro-category do not simulate what the human body does in the real experience and transfer it within the virtual environment – rather, they broaden the common experience through the digital. They, too, can be divided into at least two additional types. On the one side, there are tools that in the real world allow to make acts which benefit from a «surplus of reality» through the digital or virtual: the ‘actual’ reality becomes ‘augmented’ reality due to the technological devices (for example, Disney’s Touché, or Microsoft Omni Touch, or Mirage Table; as well as Sulon Technologies’ Sulon Cortex, the Vrvana’s Totem, and MIT’s Media Lab Crystal Ball). On the other side, there are devices which allow a more immersive digital experience by expanding the areas in which the interactive storytelling can be appreciated (Microsoft’s Illumiroom/Room Alive, Catopsys’ Immersis, NuFormer, which turn an entire three-dimensional environment surface into an interactive video projection) or by allowing better involvement through the feeling of immersion in 360 degrees. (This is the case of the numerous headsets or viewers for virtual reality).

 At times explicitly and at times indirectly, these tools, devoted to the expansion of the body senses in the virtual world, improve the spectators’ involvement in the vision of a media product. Nonetheless they are still elements of concern. The first among them is their low penetration in the markets. They are often backed by crowdfunding or developed by scientific or academic laboratories. Considering however the large amount of capital required at the beginning for their implementation, and the possible high costs in building the devices, they are still not widespread. If they were, there would be a radical paradigm shift in media spectatorship or a real embodiment era could begin. What is missing today is the ultimate technological device through which an integrated simulation of all five senses could be possible. Moreover, these same devices seem to continue to be technological curiosities, that is, the simulation of actions performed in the real world as ludic and shocking experiences for the spectator. There does not seem to have been, if not sporadically, a reflection on the use of these tools as potential elements bearers of meaning and not only as ‘attractions’. This would characterize them as tools for symbolic expression in a cultural sphere and not only as ludic or practical gimmicks. These tools, for the simple fact of immersing the spectator in a virtual reality completely superimposed to the real world, and of generating an outright parallel reality which improves the real one (defined as ‘Substitutional Reality’), raise significant questions on the level of propaganda and control that can be exercised on the audiences through such devices. Whether or not they could promote or decrease the level of individual freedom is the next big issue that researchers must face, trying to build and foster an ethical development for such devices.

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