On Tuesday afternoon, Meta, formerly Facebook, released a supposedly sexy ad: a glove. But not just any glove. It’s a tactile glove lined with tiny motors that uses bursts of air to mimic your sense of touch, and it looks like a wearable nightmare.
There’s nothing necessarily wrong with Meta’s invention of a 21st century energy glove that lets you feel digital things. The company appears to have been working on the project for seven years, and the team building it is thinking at least a decade into the future. The glove is also less worrisome than the brainwave reading bracelet Facebook announced earlier this year (the company insists the wristband does not read your thoughts). But it’s increasingly clear that, even with its shining new name, the Meta is struggling to make the metaverse, a virtual space where people can work and hang out via avatars, more accessible—and less intimidating—to the average human.
Some people will love this awful DIY equipment. Created by Meta Reality Labs, the modular haptic glove is designed to work with virtual reality systems of the future. Most VR headsets today work in conferences with controllers with joysticks and buttons. Meta Quest and Quest 2, more Reality Labs products, offer console-free manual tracking, which uses the camera on the headset and computer vision algorithms to interpret what your hands are doing and translate that movement into the virtual world. Currently, when you make an apple-picking motion in VR, your actual hand will not feel the sensation of holding an apple.
Enter: the gauntlet. The Meta tactile glove prototype uses principles from soft robotics and uses pneumatic and electric actuators to quickly inflate small air pockets on the fingers and comfort of the glove. These actuators are basically small actuators that can create the sensation of pressure, and therefore touch. The idea here is that if the Meta can put thousands of these triggers on a haptic glove and combine those sensations with the visual inputs of a VR headset or augmented reality glasses, which project digital images onto the real world, the wearer can access and feel virtual objects. With gloves like these, you might one day shake someone else’s hand in the metaverse and feel the pressure.
Meta did not invent tactile clothing. There are many companies that make jackets, pants, and even whole suits that look like battery-powered Marvel superhero costumes. Various articles of tactile clothing have appeared since the early 1990s — much like the term metaverse, which author Neil Stephenson coined in the 1992 science fiction novel. snow crash. The tactile glove specifically played a major role in Ernst Klein’s 2011 novel One ready player, as well as in the Steven Spielberg movie. In the real world around 2021, the vast majority of people using such technology are serious players with money. A haptic jacket that will put you in 40 different places on your body, for example, costs $500.
It’s worth noting that virtual reality has historically been the realm of really serious gamers, and this is a potential problem for the Meta and its grand plan for the metaverse. If Mark Zuckerberg wants everyone to use his metaverse, just like the nearly 3 billion people who use Facebook, he’s not doing himself any favors by liking the science fiction-inspired inventions produced by Reality Labs.
Tactile clothing is a futuristic concept, but it’s also very strange and potentially invasive. Would you like to record Meta data (read: Facebook) about your body movements through a special glove or scan your brain waves through a bracelet? Yes, Meta Quest’s manual tracking technology collects and stores data about your movements. This might sound innocent enough if you’re playing a round of the popular VR game Beat Saber in your living room. It’s even more worrisome when you imagine a world where you’re doing a lot of computing through a VR headset or augmented reality glasses — which Zuckerberg basically believes the future of the internet will be.
And there are plenty of reasons to believe that real life and life through a pair of internet-connected glasses can be great. In the meantime, immersive virtual reality technologies are proving to be useful for more non-gaming applications. On the same day Meta Reality Labs showed off its prototype haptic glove, the Food and Drug Administration authorized a VR system to treat chronic pain. This isn’t the first virtual reality therapy to receive FDA approval this year.
You might say the Meta tactile gauntlet is another distraction — not unlike Facebook changing its name to Meta in the midst of a historically bad scandal and making sure everyone will be talking about the metaverse for weeks to come.
It reminds us of another ad on Facebook, one that came a few days before the name change. In mid-October, Reality Labs said it was launching a research project that would analyze thousands of hours of footage taken from a first-person perspective in order to train AI models. This dataset is embedded in a video captured by Facebook’s smart glasses, which are equipped with a Ray-Bans camera. The company is recalling the Ego4D dataset and releasing it to researchers around the world this month.
Does this project sound cool and relevant to Meta’s plan to build a metaverse where people who wear smart glasses might someday want a computer to recognize what they’re looking at? certainly. Does it seem worrisome at best that a company training bots in how to see – the company that wants to own a large part of the metaverse, the next generation of the Internet – is the same company that many say is destroying democracy? Yes it is.
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