On Tuesday afternoon, Meta, a company formerly known as Facebook, made an allegedly exciting announcement: a glove. But not any gloves. It’s a haptic glove lined with tiny engines that use a rush of air to mimic the feel of touch, and it looks like a nightmare that can be worn.
There is nothing wrong with Meta inventing the 21st century Power Glove which allows you to feel digital objects. The company has obviously been working on the project for seven years, and the team that is building it is thinking for at least a decade into the future. The glove is also less annoying than the brainwave reading bracelet Facebook announced earlier this year (the company insists the bracelet does not read your mind). But it’s becoming increasingly clear that, even with its brilliant new name, Meta is struggling to make the metaverse, a virtual space where people can work and socialize through avatars, more accessible – and less creepy – to the average human being.
Some will love this weird hand outfit. Made by Meta Reality Labs, the prototype haptic glove is designed to work with the virtual reality systems of the future. Most VR headsets currently work in Congress with controllers equipped with joysticks and buttons. Meta Quest and Quest 2, multiple Reality Labs products, too offer hand tracking without a controller, which uses a camera on headphones and computer vision algorithms to interpret what your hands are doing and translate that movement into the virtual world. So for now, when you make a move to take an apple in VR, your real hand wouldn’t feel the feeling of holding an apple.
Enter: glove. The meta-in prototype of the haptic glove uses the principles of soft robotics and uses pneumatic and electroactive actuators to quickly inflate tiny air pockets on the fingers and palm of the glove. These actuators are essentially tiny motors that can create a sense of pressure and thus touch. The idea is that if Meta can put thousands of these actuators on a haptic glove and combine those sensations with the visual input of VR headphones or augmented reality glasses, which project digital images into the real world, the wearer could reach out and feel virtual objects. With gloves like this, one day you might shake someone’s avatar in the metaverse and feel the grip.
Meta did not invent haptic clothing. There are several companies that produce haptic vests, pants, and even whole suits reminiscent of battery-powered Marvel superhero costumes. Various haptic garments have been around since the early 1990s – similar to the term metaverse, coined by author Neal Stephenson in a 1992 sci-fi novel. Snow Crash. Haptic gloves in particular played a key role in Ernest Cline’s 2011 novel Ready for the first player,, as well as in a film adaptation by Steven Spielberg. In the real world around 2021, the vast majority of people who use this kind of technology are really serious players with money. A haptic vest that will stab you in 40 different places on your body, for example, costs $ 500.
It’s worth noting that VR has historically been an area of really serious gamers, and that’s a potential problem for Meta and her grand plan for the metaverse. If Mark Zuckerberg wants everyone to use his metaverse products, much like nearly 3 billion people use Facebook, he does himself no favors by relying on science fiction-inspired inventions produced by his Reality Labs.
Haptic clothing is a futuristic concept, but it is also very strange and potentially invasive. Would you like Meta (read: Facebook) to record data on your body movements through a special glove or scan your brain waves through a bracelet? Yes, Meta Quest hand tracking technology collects and stores data about your movements. This might seem innocent enough if you play a round popular VR game Beat Saber in your living room. It’s more troubling when you imagine a world where you do most of your computing through VR headphones or AR glasses – which is essentially what Zuckerberg thinks will be the future of the internet.
And there are many reasons to believe that the metaverse is also Living life through a pair of glasses connected to the internet can be cool. Meanwhile, immersive VR technologies are proving useful for more and more non-gaming applications. The same day Meta Reality Labs showed off its prototype haptic glove, the Food and Drug Administration authorized VR system for the treatment of chronic pain. And this is not even the first VR treatment to receive FDA approval this year.
It could be said that Meta’s haptic glove is another disgust – unlike Facebook changes its name to Meta amid a historically bad scandal and ensuring that everyone will talk about the metaverse in the coming weeks.
This is reminiscent of another Facebook announcement, which arrived just days before the name change. In mid-October, Reality Labs announced that it was launching a research project that would analyze thousands of hours of footage taken from a first-person perspective to train artificial intelligence models. In that data set was also a video taken using Facebook’s smart glasses, which they are Ray-Bans equipped with a camera. The company calls the dataset Ego4D and will release it to researchers around the world this month.
Does this project seem cool and relevant to Meta’s plan to build a metaverse in which one day people wearing smart glasses might want the computer to recognize what they are watching? Of course. Does it seem at best worrying that the company is training robots how to see – a company that wants to own a significant portion of the metaverse, the next generation of the Internet – the same company that many say is destroying democracy? There is.
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