We’re supposed to laugh at new technologies, right? It helps the inventors and believers in the long run, allowing them to look back and say, “See, you all laughed at us.” If that's the case, then I will go on record as saying that I laughed at the Teslasuit when I first saw it featured in a Kickstarter video.
According to its Kickstarter campaign page, the Teslasuit is “the world’s first full-body haptic suit that lets you touch and feel the future of Virtual Reality and gaming.” In other words, it’s a device that transmits tactile stimuli to its wearer via electric pulses. The demo video in question is achingly futuristic. It includes hands-on testimonials from British celebrities oooooh-ing and ahhhhhhhh-ing while wearing the wetsuit-looking machine. "This is definitely the future," says soccer player Scott Brown in his thick Scottish brogue. Close your eyes, and it's easy to imagine him saying this after beaming someone up to the USS Enterprise:
If I chuckled while watching the video, it’s because I couldn't imagine wearing a tight black suit fitted with dozens of electrodes. However, I wasn’t laughing when I actually put a version of the Teslasuit on, with Tesla Studios co-founder Dimitree Marozau controlling the frequency and power of the electric pulses firing into my body from his tablet computer.
VIRTUAL REALITY, LITERALLY
Dimitree Marozau and his business partner, Teslasuit CEO Dimitri Mikhalchuk, met me in the midst of their whirlwind tour of America (they are based in the UK). They have taken their show on the road, demonstrating what they believe to be the future of virtual reality to interested parties across the West Coast. Our meeting was postponed after a visit from reality reality: Their car had been broken into in San Francisco’s Financial District, and much of their equipment was stolen. Still, they managed to fit me into their busy schedule, agreeing to demonstrate the suit for me on Sunday evening on short notice at a friend's apartment.
“We don’t sleep,” Marozau says with a chuckle. He and his team have been working “24/7 for three years straight,” though that doesn’t seem to slow him down. He speaks breathlessly with a Belorussian accent, and hearing him and (the somewhat calmer) Mikhalchuk wax lyrical about Tesla Studios' vision for the future is a trip. (It should be noted that Tesla Studios and the Teslasuit aren’t affiliated with Elon Musk or Tesla Motors … "yet," says Marozau.)
To Dimitree and Dimitri, the Teslasuit is a lot of things. They promote it primarily as a gaming device, but they also tease it as the future of personal massage therapy (“very useful in long-haul flights”), an engagement tool for filmmakers (“We went to Hollywood; there’s lots of things happening”), a must-have piece of equipment for astronauts (“Muscle atrophy is a big problem in space”), the logical next-step in immersion therapy (“It could be used to get rid of phobias”), and much, much more (“Our mission is to connect people. People who cannot experience simple pleasures”).
Some of their ideas may sound better than others. For example, using the suit as a messaging device that sends an electric pulse to a specific part of your body when you receive an email or text strikes me as a Pavlovian nightmare. But, as they are quick to tell me, this is just one of endless applications for the suit. “What we’ve built is a platform,” says Marozau. “This is like the computer, the iPhone. It gives you full freedom."
I ask about whether or not the suit could be used for watching pornography, partly because I assume everyone has asked them this question. Marozau confirms that everyone has in fact asked this, though he is somewhat more circumspect about the Teslasuit's potential XXX applications. "Developers are free to use the software as they please," he says, diplomatically.
Right now, the Teslasuit is intended for developers only. Besides having to wait for FDA approval to sell it directly to the consumer market, Marozau says they want to build a large network of developers and beta testers so they can create “an environment around the suit,” an open-sourced foundation pieced together through tinkering and trial-and-error.
It is to this end that, ideally, the Teslasuit works as a conduit—both literally and figuratively.
Perhaps the best way to understand the basic technology behind the Teslasuit’s hardware is by watching this infomercial for the Flex Belt ("It tones, it tightens, and it strengthens without me having to think about it!"):
The electrodes in the suit are not unlike the ones used in the ab belts that were all the rage some 10 to 15 years ago. An electric pulse transmitted to your skin causes the muscles to contract. That’s it. Before being shilled by infomercial hucksters promising six-packs, electric stimulation was commonly used by physical therapists to rehabilitate patients’ injured or atrophied muscles. "The technology has been around for over 20 years," Mikhalchuk says.
For our meeting, Dimitree and Dimitri brought just a Teslasuit jacket, one lined with 30 electrodes (a newer version of the jacket features 60 electrodes). Amazingly, it looks pretty cool. It’s sleek, and cut much like a motorcycle jacket, with no overt signs pointing to the fact that it’s filled with nodes and meant to be worn with a VR helmet. The Tesla Studios team includes people from the fashion industry, and their input is immediately apparent.
Marozau tells me this jacket was put together specifically for their trip to America. It was made in just 24 hours, he says, stressing that their manufacturing process is efficient and scalable. The suit supposedly lasts four days off one charge and is waterproof and washable. “This jacket has been washed 20 times,” Mikhalchuk tells me, perhaps sensing some apprehension on my part after learning about all the intimate demonstrations the suit has been subjected to the past few weeks around Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and the Bay Area.
Everything about the suit seems eminently reasonable (relatively), though there was one noticeable catch: I had to wear a wet T-shirt underneath it for my demo. The wet T-shirt primarily helps with conductivity, but it also prevents any irritation one might experience in the suit. If I was worried my first foray into haptic reality suits was going to be too normal, getting a tutorial from Marozau in a cramped bathroom on how to properly wet a T-shirt quickly fixed that. (Future models likely won’t require this step—there is a tiny tube poking out from the waistline that will pump in a lubricating element.)
After putting on the snug jacket—it was designed for Dimitree’s frame—I struggled to find the words to describe how I felt. “Like Iron Man?” Mikhalchuk asks, “Everyone says that.”
TUNE IN, TURN ON, ZIPPER UP
After strapping me into a belt that gives the jacket Bluetooth connectivity, Marozau syncs it to his tablet computer and starts to play with the knobs on the demo program’s interface. When he presses the shoulder on my little avatar, I feel a pulsing, like someone tapping me on the shoulder. He then moves to my avatar’s stomach, and the same thing happens there. He tweaks the power and frequency and revs it up to a point that almost makes me double over. “You will get used to it,” he says, “Like jumping into cold water. It will become normal.”
He’s right. Soon, I’m controlling the jacket myself, tapping sections on my avatar to bring about pulsing sensations in real life. It’s a peculiar out-of-body experience, like being tickled by your own ghost. But how does this translate to virtual reality?
Thanks to whoever broke into Dimitree and Dimitri’s car, I wasn’t able to find out. All their equipment (save for the jacket, which they had on them at the time of the break-in) was stolen, and though they were able to borrow an Oculus Rift and VR laptop, their virtual reality gaming demo wasn’t back up and running by the time they met with me.
They assure me it works, though I can only take their word for it. What I experienced was nothing like, say, the sensation of walking through a field of wheat or being splashed by a wave. “Reality is the way we measure it, this is quantum physics,” Marozau says. Our systems of neuro-chemical reactions for touch are pretty straight-forward; our brains combine it with other senses to supply the context and meaning. If the visual and other outside stimuli that correspond with touch are convincing enough, the project presupposes, a corresponding power and frequency from the electrodes could allow for a convincing virtual reality experience.
A main goal of Tesla Studios—and this is far-horizon stuff—is to build a database of every tactile sensation on Earth. “It’s why we’re attracting beta testers and developers,” says Marozau. The hope is that, one day, they will know which electric pulse corresponds to a feather, what combination of power and frequency translates to sand, or bubble wrap, or an exploding paintball. “This is big data analysis,” he says. “We want to get all this data, just amalgamate it and analyze and find out the patterns. There’s lots of work ahead.”
Therein lies the most interesting aspect of the Teslasuit, whether or not the Teslasuit will be the medium through which it’s achieved. If we can fit an entire world of sensations in the cloud, where does that lead us? At what point does the “V” in “VR” begin to fade away? Dimitree and Dimitri may not have the answers right now, though they love asking the questions.
Dimitree and Dimitri’s tour of America is far from over. After our meeting they have to hurry out and prepare for the next day’s presentation to a group of media executives, one that will include a demonstration of a “trans-Atlantic hug” with someone wearing the suit in the UK. I give them back the Teslasuit jacket that will be used in this "tele-haptic" exchange and say goodbye. My shirt is still sopping wet.