The Future of Touch

The Future of Touch

"Day Dreamer Bot" by Lauren Briére /

Spa aficionado Mary Bemis traveled to New York to receive her first massage from a robot.

This month began in a most unusual way. I flew to New York City from my home in Oregon for a 10-minute date with a touchy-feely robot in Chelsea. There was some comfort in the location—my mother and her sisters grew up in Chelsea, and I knew the neighborhood well. If my departed mother knew that I would be returning to Chelsea on a dreary January day to get a massage from a robot, I wonder what she would’ve thought. She, more than most, intimately knew all about the healing power of touch. At 18 months old, she was stricken with polio—but she fared better than most. Why? The short answer is because her mother massaged her legs every day. For years. But that’s a story for another time. Bottom line: I was raised with the knowledge of the power of touch. It permeated our household; it was a part of daily life. It was simply a given.

I had traveled to New York to be massaged by the robot at the invitation of Eric Litman, the charming and personable founder and CEO of Aescape, a tech company set on building fully-automated, data-driven massage therapy experiences. Eric’s inspiration behind his creation came from a very real and personal need to help fix a serious neck issue. We had Zoomed in November, shortly after his company had received $30 million in Series A funding. I asked him why he wanted to disrupt my spa and wellness industry in weird ways. And so, an interesting conversation ensued—hence the invitation to experience the prototype that could potentially change the industry and the future of touch at large.

It rained on the day of my date with the robot, but I was happy to meet Eric in person. I entered a serious tech space with serious people doing serious things. I was shown to a small, dimly lit room where the robot—a sleek massage table of sorts—resided. The table had a pair of arms on either side that moved along the table and were controlled by a touch screen visible through the head rest. In the first encounters, the person getting the massage, who lies face-down, has to teach the machine what kind of pressure and placement and music they desire. But the machine learns, so the same personalized massage becomes available at any location offering Aescape. No need to worry about a poorly trained therapist or having your favorite therapist move away. No need to take off your clothes. This is an anywhere experience.

But my first impression: The robot, though inviting, looked lonely. Suspended in time, waiting, waiting for its future. For some odd reason, I felt sorry for it in all of its prototype-ness. So, there you are, I thought to myself. God only knows where we will end up.

So, what was it like? At the end of my 10-minute massage—confined to my lower back and glutes—I sat up and said to myself, Yes, I do feel better than I did when I walked in. But essentially, it felt like the touch of a very sophisticated Theragun. Granted, this is still in its demo phase, but I have a hard time imagining how it can really mimic the touch of a human. It can’t sense my pain and work me through it, fixing things, though perhaps someday it will.

It was a curious experience, and one I’m happy to have had, for, like it or not, this is one future of touch. Eric, who has been working on this since 2017, expects his AI-powered massage therapy experience to launch at the end of this year. He’s hoping that it leaves people feeling “healthier, happier, and restored,” while fulfilling a demand for massage in an industry short on labor. I can see it being a useful tool for athletic teams, recovery, airports, or a lunch break.

Shortly after my robot massage, I had the most incredible facial of my life. This may sound frou-frou to you, but it goes back to touch. The facial was with renowned skincare guru Pietro Simone, who recently opened an eponymous skincare clinic in New York’s SoHo. Before the facial, he showed me all sorts of gleaming new high-tech equipment. Here we go again, I thought to myself. Bring it on! I’ve just been massaged by a robot!

Soon, I was lying on his table. But when he put his hands on my face, I thought I had died and gone to heaven. His hands danced on my face. Whatever he did, it felt great. By the end of it, I felt as though I was levitating. He has the hands of a master and an intuitive sense of touch that I just don’t believe a machine could ever mimic.

I ended my New York jaunt in the Finger (do you see a theme here?) Lakes region, where I visited The Lake House on Canandaigua. It was snowing the day I arrived at the lakefront property. My first stop was the Willowbrook Spa, where I signed up for a detoxifying massage with Lindsay. It was a good massage, and I felt like I was in capable and caring hands. As I typically do, I struck up a conversation and learned that Lindsay had started her career as a nurse because she wanted to help people. But it was simply too sad for her, so she turned to massage, where she was much happier.

Lindsay made me think of the robot. I had felt sad for the robot, though I knew it would grow up into a much more sophisticated machine. Would it ever feel happy to be giving massages?

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DAY DREAMER BOT credit Lauren Briere

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