I cannot really see the point in Corey Menscher’s much applauded (for example, here, here, here, here, , here and here) gadget Kickbee. In short, Kickbee is a wearable belly belt with embedded piezo sensors, which send a message to a Twitter account each time the foetus kicks around.

Writes Corey: “With the Kickbee, I wanted to create a device that would give me a chance to be aware of our baby’s movements”.

“Give me a chance to be aware of our baby’s movements”? Give me a break! The Kickbee is a good illustration of how underrated haptic experiences are in our culture.

As I wrote in a post last June (and another post in November), this lack of appreciation of haptics is problematic, because it sustains the general cultural trend of drawing our attention away from immediate sensory experiences and transforming them into mediated experiences.

By transforming the tactile life of the foetus into an ultrasound-generated image or a series of Twitter messages — ‘I kicked Mommy at 06.23 on Thu, Dec. 18’, ‘I kicked Mommy at 06.25 on Thu, Dec. 18’, etcetera — we put yet another medium between the physical world and our senses.

It’s like tourists who never get a chance to see (or touch or smell) anything in a foreign city, because they’ve spent the whole vacation looking through a (video) camera.

The Kickbee also reinforces the general tendency in our culture to undervalue the sense of touch, making it less important than the other senses, especially the sense of vision (and partly the auditory sense). For another comment on this phenomenon, see Jan Eric’s and my conference abstract here.

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  • Hello, Thomas. Your discussion of my project, Kickbee, has given me a lot to think about. Judging from your previous posts, you have put a lot of thought into the concept of technology mediating our experience as parents…both pre- and post- birth. However, I think you have jumped to a few conclusions as to Kickbee’s purpose based on your own experience and preconceived notions.

    As I mentioned in my description and blog posts, Kickbee was not designed to replace the haptic experience of feeling our child move in the womb. There is certainly no substitute for feeling that tiny rumble in a mother’s belly with your hand. It was when I was AWAY from my wife…when there was no possibility of an unmediated haptic experience…did I find that I wanted to have some way of maintaining the awareness of the baby’s presence and vitality.

    The initial concept for Kickbee was to create two devices, the belt for the mother and another belt or perhaps wristband for the father that would replicate the haptic experience. Of course, it would only be a mere shadow of the actual sensation, but the ability to have SOME sense of its movement was compelling enough. More importantly, the experience could be transmitted through space to allow a slice of the experience through.

    Since the project was completed in the context of a graduate school class, I realized that I did not have the time or resources to develop two devices. I then realized that I always had a mobile phone with me. Its vibrating motor and always-on network would make a fine “client” for me to work with. As an avid Twitterer, I was familiar with the Twitter API and its ability to send SMS messages to feed subscribers. Originally I created a private Twitter account that only my wife and I would share…although there was talk of letting our parents and siblings in on it. When a kick was sent to Twitter, a message could be sent to my phone prompting it to vibrate in my pocket. This vibration was the core of my intentional output. Once the project was complete and was to be presented, I opened the account up publicly.

    It’s important to note that Twitter only acts as an SMS trigger and data log. Yes, this medium comes between the physical world and our senses…but its intent, as with most communications technologies, was to allow a sliver of the experience to be transmitted across a distance. Even though a telephone conversation or even a video chat pales in comparison to a face-to-face meeting, we still use these tools because they are better than no communication at all.

    Kickbee was never intended to be used in my presence. In fact, since the semester ended and I’ve been home with my wife over the holidays, she has only worn it when I was working on improving it, or demonstrating its operation to others. It just feels WRONG for her to be wearing it when I can just slide over on the couch and feel her belly while the baby’s being active.

    Once Kickbee started receiving press and I received comments about it, I became aware that there are plenty of fathers who are simply unable to have the intimate experience of feeling with their own hands their babies kick in the womb at all, and for whom Kickbee would help maintain a connection to that experience. Whether it was military personnel stationed overseas or fathers who were forced to travel often or for long periods of time for their careers, there is a significant population that has no choice but to have a mediated experience. They would prefer that to no experience of it at all.

    I believe much of the acclaim Kickbee has received is mostly due to its novel use of Twitter. Unfortunately, this has been the focus of the discussion, rather than Kickbee’s ability to bridge the distance between a father and his mother and growing child.

  • Hi Corey, thanks for your rapid and well-argued comment on my Kickbee-post.

    I was perhaps a trifle unfair with respect to the intention of the Kickbee. I can certainly see its value in situations where a significant other is physically removed from the foetus’s immediate kicking action, and I don’t have quarrels with this — on the contrary (and I should have said so in the post) I think this is a great idea.

    However, as historians of science and technology know, inventions (devices, ideas, theories, whatever) begin to live a life of their own after they leave the laboratory. As you say, Kickbee has received its acclaim mostly due to its novel use of Twitter. When an invention leaves the lab it becomes a part of culture, and its meaning grows out of how the users (the market, the reviewers etc.) understand it and make sense of it (well, it’s a part of culture already in the process of construction but that’s another aspect that I leave out here).

    So even if your intention has been Kickbee’s ability to bridge the distance between a father and his mother and growing child, it looks like the reviewers (and potentially the users) interpret it as a device which adds yet another layer of mediation beteen the physical reality and our senses. So even if you, as the inventor, don’t want to bracket the feeling of immediate touch, you cannot control how reviewers turn it into a Twitter-generating gadget.

    And that was my point — that the cultural use of Kickbee may risk sustaining the dominance of the visual senses and textual interpretation of the world at the expense of the sense of touch. So that even if you see it as a supplement to touch, users may unfortunately rather value it as a substitute for touch.

  • Hi Corey and Thomas, your posts made me think of the relation between haptics and touch and how the former, meaning the science of touch, is more often used, at least that’s my impression, in our world of ubiquitous computing and tele-presence technology where devices like Kickbee, subject the realm of touch, to thorough mediation. Corey’s account of his initial plan, to enable the husband to sense the foetus by means of sense simulation is interesting. Will you continue on this one Corey? Another aspect which raises my curiosity is how Kickbee will affect the mothers experience of pregnancy. But maybe ultrasound examinations have paved the way for domestic techniques like Kickbee.

  • Søren

    Thank you for a very interesting discussion. I would love it to take put the three of you in a room (along with a pregnant woman, a Kickbee and a mobile phone) and experience they dynamics. But I guess that is not really practically possible, and therefore I am quite happy to receive it in this mediated form.

    I agree with Thomas that a device like Kickbee is very likely to at some point become something other than a substitute for direct sensory experience and instead work as an instrument for enhancement or even correction of sensory impressions. In my view, that does not detract from the very sympathic intentions Corey has with his invention. But it certainly is interesting to speculate about the kind of DIY pre-natal diagnostics that might grow out of the data flow transmitted by Kickbee. And who will work out the algorithms that can predict the sex of the child?

  • Actually, the idea of Corey can have great implications in healthcare. I’ve recently had a post about it: http://scienceroll.com/2008/12/14/the-youngest-twitterer-and-the-future-of-health-management/

  • Hi Berci, agree, sending signals from a monitoring gauge attached to, or inserted in the body, to Twitter (or any other continuous recording system) is a good idea. I just want to introduce a healthy dosis of technoskepticism in the discussion. As I wrote in an earlier post, I can easily imagine a future

    when nano-sized diagnostic devices may be able to monitor 30, 50 or 100 biochemical and physiological parameters, when the data can be sent via new generations of miniaturized internal RFID transponders to [my daughter’s] mobile ‘phone’ (or whatever such a thing will then be called), which in turn will transmit continuous vital data from her and everybody else to the transnational population bio-control center in Beijing.

    I’m not sure I think about this as ‘progress’ in healthcare, but rather in more dystopic terms.

  • Thomas – I can’t deny that since Kickbee started getting attention, it has occurred to me that it may be used in ways beyond my original objective. That realization really hit when I was asked by a reporter whether Kickbee could be used to update Facebook. I answered yes, because it could, but I didn’t insist that Facebook’s methodology of involuntarily pushing information to an entire social network was against my original design. As you can imagine, once Facebook was brought into the discussion, Kickbee became a way for parents to share a typically intimate part of pregnancy with the public at large.

    At ITP, we try to use existing technology in novel and expressive ways. The easier the technology is to utilize (or hack), the more useful it is to us. Twitter and its API are perfect for this. But your point that Twitter’s position within the culture would have more impact on Kickbee’s use than my original intent is a good one. I lean towards software development, and one of the truisms of software development is that there are always users who interact with an application in unexpected ways. I suppose in the case of Kickbee it’s a definite possibility.

    I suppose one question I’d like to explore is, is there a way that sensory experience AND mediated experience can coexist? Can these mediated experiences augment our reality satisfactorily, without *replacing* sensory experiences? For example, if Kickbee were publicly available, would fathers really stop feeling their wives bellies with their own hands when a baby kicked? Or would it extend their ability to take part in this ritual, albeit in a filtered way? And in the case of sharing the experience with others, is it wrong to allow a pregnant mother’s parents or siblings to be aware of the fetus’s activity?

    Jan Eric – I haven’t put a lot of thought into extending Kickbee’s haptic output, but it would be intriguing to transform the touch awareness of a kick to another sense, like audio. As for the question about whether Kickbee would change a mother’s experience of pregnancy, I think that knowing that the father can somehow be “in sync” with her physical experience might enhance their bond.

    Thanks for the great discussion, everyone!