Tapping on the window of invisible touch

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A wink is a single binary bit of information. The eye is either open or closed. But, across a dinner table, or a crowded room, a wink can communicate so much: "I'm in on the joke." "I saw what you did." "I'm on your side, kiddo." The tiny gesture pulls meaning from circumstance, context and relationship, directs its beam and then condenses it into a fleeting twitch of an eyelid.

Social gestures like that put pay to the notion that rich meaning requires high bandwidth. The gentle or painful squeeze of a hand on a forearm is loaded with opposite meaning and, even if delivered by the same person in the same circumstance, the simple variant of pressure speaks volumes.

In the digital realm we have lots of low bandwidth ways of communicating -- the smiley, the more broad range of emoticons, playful emoji or texting short forms. But each lack the uniqueness that can power intimate emotional exchanges. LOL is the same no matter who types it -- and is now so common as to have lost its true, literal meaning. A thumbs-up "like" is as impersonal and mass produced as a dime-store greeting card. The emoji "pile of poop" is open to irony, but it's the same pile regardless.

So, I don't think we should underestimate the "digital touch" that is one of the features of the upcoming Apple Watch. Using the force-touch screen, sensors and the "Taptic Engine" in the watch, you can send loved ones (who also sport a Watch) a gentle tap on the wrist, a picture you draw on the Watch's touchscreen with a finger or even transmit your heartbeat in real time.

The Taptic Engine is a refined form of what is called haptic feedback -- communication you can feel. This technology takes the buzz that jars you when your phone is on vibrate and adds refinement. Using tiny electromagnets, the Apple Watch can direct force downward into your wrist or allow you to send a variety of taps and touches to someone else's.

The same technology is now in Apple's latest MacBook and will soon make its way into upcoming iPhones and iPads, where things will get really interesting. Clever haptic feedback can trick us into feeling ridges, pushes and plateaus that don't exist on smooth glass surfaces. Those keys you're feeling as you type? They're not really there.
On the Watch your heartbeat is detected by the sensors in the Watch and the Taptic Engine apes its throb in your partner's timepiece.

When I first saw the "share your heartbeat" feature demonstrated, I was enthralled. It should have been a cheesy moment, and I've got a highly refined "fromage detector." I'm also about as sentimental as a resin cast of Spock, but I loved it. It struck me as a totally new form of digital communication.

I've yet to experience it in person, but from what I've heard and read, the heartbeat feels like a pulse on your wrist, a tap feels like a real tap, not a buzz. The demo by itself made me think, "OK, I'm buying two." One for me, one for my wife. Why? Because unlike an emoji, a short-form or an emoticon, the tap on my wife's wrist would be mine, would be me -- a binary state with my signature attached. It would have an implicit, intimate message -- thinking of you. And, in a blink of an eye, that changed the nature of digital communication for me.

The idea of transmitting the senses or sensorium of one person to another is well-imagined science fiction. Canadian sci-fi author William Gibson toys with the concept in his 1984 novel, Neuromancer, in which a woman, Molly, sends her sense of touch through cyberspace to Case, the book's unlikely hero. In the '90s I first heard of the concept of sex-at-a-distance, or teledildonics. One partner stimulates the other via linked, wireless sex toys. This isn't that, but it is intimate and nobody has to wear rubber underpants.

What appeals to me is that transmitted haptic sensations bring, literally, high touch to high tech. And they open the door to some fascinating futures. Imagine, for example, a tablet with haptic feedback. You fire it up and have a video chat with your daughter, now half a country away at university. You press your hand to your screen. She does the same. You both feel the touch of the other spread from fingers to palm as the two hands mirror each other. That's coming. Right now, we're just about to tap on that window.

Listen to an audio version of this column, read by the author, here.

Wayne MacPhail has been a print and online journalist for 25 years, and is a long-time writer for rabble.ca on technology and the Internet.

Photo: Hernán Piñera/flickr

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