From virtual SM to real empathy-Week4

The “CyberSM” was an experimental project made by Stahl Stenslie and Kirk Woolford in 1993-94 to create a real time, visual, auditory, and tactile communication through the cyber space with the theme of Sado-Masochistic role-playing. Stenslie and Woolford’s goal for designing this CyberSM suits had been twofold: first, they wanted to maximize the utilization of the narrow bandwidth of the communication/VR systems at the time; and second, they wanted to create a “specific” environment for VR in which it “primarily concerned with fetishism and the ambient sensation of pleasure and pain” (“Information-Arts” 164). The premise of CyberSM was to duplicate and transmit physical stimuli from one participant to the other over a distance. This was made possible through motorized body suits that were wired and connected to each other over international ISDN telephone lines, the broadband link to the internet at the time. The participants can choose their own visual appearance from a large databank of digitized 3-D scans of human bodies. Their stimulator suits were made using materials such as rubber and latex, and gears with “various kinds of sensoric stimulators/effectors, mounted both inside and outside the outfit” (“Information-Arts” 165) were placed on many different parts of the body. The CyberSM system also included a voice connection between the participants, allowing them to speak to each other. Once the participants are ready, they can send the image of their virtual self to the others on the network, and start the “touching” experiences as they chat. They have control of stimulus to their own physical body through the computer and their suite, which is then directly mirrored to the other participant through the network interface. Therefore, whatever they would want others to feel, they would have to feel it on themselves first.

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During the first exhibition of this project, they had participants with the CyberSM setup in Paris, France and Cologne, Germany, with a total distance of around 600 Kilometers or 370 miles. However, because of their language difference, after they pushed a couple buttons, and bubbled to each other, they quickly got bored and asked to remove the suits. Although people who tried on the suits agreed they were interesting, they still far from fulfilling. Based on this experience, they realized that even though this novel project allowed people to “touch” each other over a long distance in a virtual environment, the forms of the touch were too limited to allow them to carry on and break the language barrier. Since the suits could only control a very limited number of stimulators, they only placed those stimulators on the most sensitive regions of the body, so the system could not do much other than sexual sensations. Despite its limitations, this touch system immediately gained notoriety as the first functional cybersex system, and magazines and television programs were filled with distorted capabilities of it.

From the lecture, we learned that scientists often “make intellectual links between their own area of expertise and that of others… [through] technological capability that can, and dose, underpin cross-disciplinary research on a scale hitherto unseen”(Big biology). Although the CyberSM experiment was very limited in its controversial goal, it nevertheless gave the world a daring account of pushing the technological envelope to break beyond the normal barriers of the time. Its idea of live tactile communication could very possibly be extended to the mainstream on the practical level such as remote surgery and other medical services, but also on the psychological level for people to truly understand one another through sharing the same physical sensations. One example that comes to mind is the Dutch show “Proefkonijnen BNN,” where the two main male hosts were invited to feel, through electrode stimulation, the pain that women felt delivering a baby.(Video link:

) The two big men couldn’t bear that pain and got off the machine after only two hours and they couldn’t imagine how a woman can bear such pain for up to two days. Thus, if we have a device that could let us feel exactly what another felt or is feeling at the same time, then perhaps we will have a more real experience of putting on someone else’s shoes, which hopefully would open up a way for us to empathize with others more.


“Information-arts”, Stephen Wilson.

“Big Bology”, Elaine Welsh, Marina Jirotka, and David Gavaghan, 2006,

-Yinrou Wang


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