Ken Goldberg, Richard S. Wallace: The Data Mitt

  • ©, Ken Goldberg and Richard S. Wallace



    The Data Mitt



Artist Statement:

    “In all the arts there is a physical component.” – Paul Valery, Aesthetics, 1934

    “Reach out and touch someone.” -American Telegraph and Telephone, 1985


    The physical component has been almost totally neglected in “computer art,”which uses lasers, pen-plotters, and photo-offset techniques to produce purely 2D images lacking tactile quality. Cut off from the body, there is no trace of the “hand of the artist.” Hence, it is especially difficult to assess the value of an art object produced in this manner.

    There is a parallel void in digital communications: we can transmit and receive voice and coarse images, but we cannot reach out and touch anything. The current interest in virtual reality suggests that we can overcome this limitation through new technology. As these technical barriers begin to fall, more subtle barriers will emerge. The Data Mitt suggests one such barrier.

    The Data Mitt offers an elementary means of telecommunication. The user is invited to place their hand into an electromechanical device containing a binary sensor (a squeeze ball that allows the user to transmit one bit of information), and a binary actuator (a primitive direct-drive motor that allows the user to receive one bit of information). This information is transmitted via digital modem to a symmetric arrangement at the other end of an ordinary telephone line. In this way we introduce a physical component into digital telecommunication: two users can hold hands at a distance.

    The Data Mitt is a low-bandwidth version of the Data Glove. The Data Glove has become a virtual reality icon, which strives to incorporate the user’s body into the computer interface.With precursors like the Hawaiian Shirt and the Exoskeleton from the early days of tele-operation, to the Air Force’s Heads Up display from the 1980s, this effort has a long history. Getting the computer to provide realistic feedback in the form of pressure or tactile stimuli has proven elusive, partly due to the technical problem of time delays. Yet as technology closes the gap, we must ask, “What is at stake when a person wears such a device?”

    Historically, devices that require the insertion of the body have not, for the most part, been used to provide pleasure. Fictional examples include the apparatus in Kafka’s The Penal Colony and the Gorn Jabbar in Frank Herbert’s Dune. In Rome’s Piazza Bocca della Verita, there is a church built by Pope Hadrian in 772 A.D. In an alcove, the stone mask of a local, pagan river god is affixed to the mouth of a water conduit. According to legend, if a person lies and inserts his hand into the Bocca della Verita, the Bocca will bite off the offender’s hand.

    This legend suggests Freud’s Vagina Dentata. Rather than unpack nuances of this reference, we borrowed the Latin term for mask, persona, for our subtitle. In the contemporary world of computer-based art and telecommunications, this may be the last refuge for the hand of the artist.