Sensory, why touch matters

Will the rapid expansion of digital touch reconfigure touch and the tactile like optical technologies transformed sight and the visual?

We are on the brink of a sensory revolution: The social sciences and humanities are marked by growing interest in the value of the human senses and the desire to move beyond a vision-centric approach to re-evaluate the roles of other senses (see Howes and Classen, 2014). The emerging field of digital sensory communication, the design of digital devices or environments that newly exploit the senses, in computer science and Human Computer Interaction (HCI) heralds the digital sensory revolution: touch is the vanguard.

The rapid expansion of digital touch: Just two decades ago touch technology could only be found in science fiction books and film, then came technologies (like haptics) and devices (like Phantom) that rely on touch sensation to create the illusion of shape and textures that enable users to feel a variety of virtual objects and control remote manipulators, followed, just over a decade ago, by game consoles using digital touch (remember Nintendo DS?). Today touch is at the center of a re-imagining of digital sensory communication and the dominance of language and visual interfaces is lessening as digital communication increasingly turns to touch features. The rapid expansion in digital touch technologies is set to reconfigure touch and the tactile in significant ways, much as optical technologies transformed sight and the visual (e.g. from the telescope and microscope, the X-ray, photography, film, computer graphics, MRIs to Google Glass). Digital touch technologies are re-shaping what can be touched as well as how it can be touched in ways that are re-configuring ways of knowing and will lead to new forms of knowledge about the world and modes of communication.

What are the social consequences of how touch is being digitally re-mediated?The centrality of touch to both human experience and communication underpins the need to understand the social consequences of how touch is being digitally remediated. Touch is the first sense through which humans apprehend their environment and it is central to our development (Field, 2001). Touch may not be much spoken about yet it provides significant information and experience of the world; it is crucial for tool use and is central to communication: ‘Just as we ‘do things with words’ so, too, we act through touches’ (Finnegan, 2014). Indeed knowing how to infer meaning from touch is considered the very basis of social being. Digital touch matters because it is considered within computer science and HCI to have the most potential for communication and it is the sense most rapidly being developed in the intensification of digital sensory communication. While technologies to synthesize and exploit taste and smell are emerging, their potential for communication is as yet unclear.

What is digital touch now? What potentials and constraints (semiotic features and affordances) of touch are taken up by the new applications on the everyday touch screens in people’s pockets, or the latest (once imaginary) design of 3-D touch interfaces through which people can shake hands and touch across distance. How is touch thought about and configured in the design of still speculative touch technologies –that want us to be able to touch and feel objects (e.g. cells or atoms) at a micron and atomic level or touch based holograms? The contemporary communicational landscapes from which such digital touch technologies are emerging (and contributing to), albeit unevenly, is characterized by changes in how physical distance is thought of and managed. Increased digital augmentation and new material forms of artefacts are also a feature.

How might digital touch evolve? New forms and practices of share-ability and the public availability of information are evolving. New types of touch and sensory interaction are emerging. Digital technologies are shrinking in size and increasing in speed and capacity, and advancements in immersive touch technologies, touch driven hardware, touch and motion sensors are developing rapidly. The possibilities for touch realized by the portability, connectivity, and power of the digital are shifting the ‘gravitational centre’ of communication. The emergent area of digital sensory communication points both to the shifting, contingent, dynamic character of the senses, and the ever-closer relationship between the semiotics of touch, technology and communication. We need to better understand what this means for digital touch communication.

Significant and profound developments of touch require a social analysis:While computer scientists, engineers and HCI designers are pushing the boundaries of touch technologies in creating new sensory devices and experiences, interfaces, devices and environments, their concern is oriented towards technological possibilities and advancements to inform design. Nonetheless their (often tacit) assumptions about touch and the way we use our senses are ‘designed into’ the development of these technologies (Kelly, 2010) and consumer expectations of a technology are set by the framing of its initial use or re-framing its subsequent uses: though of course the user may not take these up in ‘expected’ ways. While this work is significant and exciting it does not set out to address the many social and semiotic questions that the new designs of digital touch raise.

The senses are so intimately tied to our existence and the impact of digital touch developments  so potentially significant and profound  digital touch can not be left to the computer scientists alone.  In short, we need a socially oriented analysis to examine the impact of digital touch on communication. That is the focus of the IN-TOUCH project.

Further reading:

Howes, D. and Classen, C. (2013) Ways of Sensing: Understanding the Senses In Society, London: Routledge.

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