There’s a man and a woman sucking face on a museum bench. They have been kissing for so long that they have drawn a crowd. People are pointing, staring, whooping. Clearly, social norms are being violated. Then, you notice the wires, and the gadgetry that is strapped to the guy’s face, and that, by sticking his tongue in his girlfriend’s mouth, he is steering a car on the monitor behind her. This is Kiss Controller, an artwork, act of exhibitionism, wearable interface, racing videogame, and, best of all, love, maybe.
Physical person-to-person contact is an anomaly in the world of wearable technology, and in technology in general. It’s the rare mechanical device that brings people closer. “[There’s the] Kinect camera, but still that only detects people’s bodies. It doesn’t detect emotion,” says Hye Yeon Nam, the 34-year-old creator of Kiss Controller. She explains that while plenty of innovative gesture and touch controllers come to market, they rarely involve touching and gesturing to someone. Wearables, similarly, are by-and-large augments for self-improvement. Smart glasses augment our eyes and our memory. Smart bands collect telemetry data from our routines and heart rates. E-textiles will ideally have medical applications. Collectively, they’re in the business of providing us with beneficial and deeply personal, but downright factual, information. They’re insular. They don’t reflect emotion.
On the contrary, Kiss Controller isn’t useful at all. It isn’t a pedometer for makeout sessions. It won’t make you a better kisser. It doesn’t rate your kiss by wetness nor intensity nor its French-ness (although there is a high score table that keeps track of which couples steer the car across the finish line fastest, and it gets competitive). Yet with one peck, this kittenish, voyeuristic alternative to spin-the-bottle has the potential to enrich your quality of life greater than any efficiency-monitoring app; because, on your deathbed, you won’t be reminiscing about the time you burned 500 calories. The controller detects kissing and only kissing, but theoretically it could push the love-making button harder. Nam has gotten offers to collaborate with the salacious developers of electronic condoms, though she insists that Kiss Controller will remain wholesome and, in her words, cute and lovely. “It’s more about romance!” she tells me.
Nam’s artistry in the past has included robotic sculptures that wave to onlookers, and an installation with little wooden people who raise the roof when you provoke them. In upcoming months, she will be teaching elementary school children how to use conductive thread to make bracelets and gloves that augment the act of hugging. She considers her medium to be the human body and the actions performed by it, not wood nor metal nor, in the case of Kiss Controller, polygons. It follows, naturally, that the ultimate performance would be the expression of love. She uses wearables as a way to encourage people to make intimate links—to “close the circuit,” as she puts it—which is what happens when the sensor of one tongue connects with the sensor of another.
The possibilities for wearables to enhance sensual experiences are untapped, but Kiss Controller is suggestive. If taken as a jumping-off point, it’s easy and fun to speculate where this could lead when combined with other technologies from the emotionally attuned fringe. Heart Sync by Kristin Neidlinger, for example, is a pair of corsets made from luminescent fabric that lights up when people get on the same wavelength. Put those two ideas together and you could have clever insight into whether or not your date digs your canoodling. But why stop at kissing? With inventions like ultra-thin conductive fabric, the future of making out could evolve into a cybernetic love-fest with sensors and electronic latex and kissing controllers strapped all over your body, each providing real-time data that guides you towards the elusive neotantric experience. “I just need to make it more comfortable,” Nam says.