When you travel to Montréal to attend a workshop on touch you cannot help but be more conscious of all the haptic sensations you encounter while traveling. The fabric in the cheap airline pillow, the fight with your fellow traveller for the centre armrest, or the rather special mouthfeel of the local Quebecian delicacy, Poutine.
Haptic sensations are many and varied in the ‘real world’ but they are also increasingly being digitized through haptic technology. Technology to create haptic sensation is steadily getting more advanced. Take a look at, for example, technologies being created by companies such as Ultrahaptics and HaptX. These companies have created devices that allow for haptic sensations to be felt in mid-air or that provide realistic sensations of shapes, textures and temperatures, respectively. Digitization of haptic sensations not only happens for reasons of mimicking experiences with feeling materials in the real world but also for socio-affective communication purposes. In fact, alongside my academic work on haptic social communication, I am co-founder of a small start-up company called House of Haptics where we are creating the HEY bracelet, a wearable for social touch at a distance through a gentle squeezing sensation.
Haptic communication in general has the potential to change social communication practices and can impact the way we engage with others around us and with others at a distance through, for example, the Internet. Do we really need to be in each other’s proximity any longer if we can create compelling sensations of physical presence? Can we enhance intimate communication between partners, parents and children separated by distance? Can we use touch to make virtual characters in VR more compelling (and should we)? And can we use touch to better understand our own body? These are just some of the highly relevant, societally important, and very interesting questions surrounding the digitization of touch, so I was very excited to be given the opportunity to co-organize the workshop Reshaping Touch Communication: An Interdisciplinary Research Agenda at CHI’18 in Montréal with, among others, the wonderful people of the IN-TOUCH project.
The aim of the workshop was not necessarily to provide definitive answers to the questions above but, rather, to discuss whether or not these are the right kinds of questions to be asking. Are there perhaps more questions to be asked and, if so, how can we best go about answering them? We set up the workshop to approach this not from any single perspective, but to involve multiple perspectives, represented by people from vastly different disciplines. This was not only attested to by the varied backgrounds of the organizing committee but definitely also by all of the participants in the workshop. We had people from sociology, psychology, HCI, electrical engineering, media history, fashion, and art participating enthusiastically in the discussions.
The longer I work on haptics, especially applied in a social communication domain (what I like to call ‘social touch technology’), the more I am convinced that an interdisciplinary perspective is what is necessary to truly get to the heart of key issues around social touch. On the one hand we need haptic technology to enable, for example, studies into the effects of haptics remote collaboration. At the same time we might need to know about the underlying physiology of the somatosensory system in order to be able to design effective haptic devices. A nice example of this was provided by Paul Strohmeier (University of Copenhagen), who demonstrated a series of prototypes at the workshop inspired by the response characteristics of mechanoreceptors found in the fingers. The, in Paul’s own words, ‘simple’ mapping between input (i.e. a piezo resistive sensor) and vibrotactile output (i.e. a linear vibrotactile actuator) created compelling sensations (illusions?) of weight and pliability.
At the same time one may arrive at the use of haptics through a desire to create emotionally expressive wearable devices. The work presented by Caroline Zheng (Royal College of Art) featured sophisticated pneumatically actuated soft wearables that could apply gentle pressure to the body. The aim here was not necessarily to stimulate any specific receptor but to use touch as an intimate signal.
Pleasant tactile sensations can come from unexpected places. Donald Degraen (Saarland Informatics Campus) showed how he explored 3D-printed hair-like structures that, depending on the length of the individual hairs, produced different sensations of softness or roughness. Interestingly, one print did not follow exactly the linear relation between hair length and softness (i.e. longer hairs generally felt softer). To me this was actually the print that felt the most pleasant! To provide an answer as to why this print performed differently one would have to know about tactual perception as well as the exact digital fabrication methods used. Donald’s, perhaps somewhat deflated answer, was that maybe the print was left in the sun too long (dare I say we need to involve meteorologists as well?).
Domenico Prattichizzo (University of Siena) with help of his PhD student Tommaso Lisini showed how finger-mounted haptic devices that produce force, vibration, and temperature sensations can be used to enhance movie viewing experiences by augmenting touches that you see occurring in the movie with felt sensations in the device. To me, this seems like something that can have interesting commercial applications, not just in movie viewing, but in VR and AR in particular. This is another point that I think is interesting to the study of digital touch. We need technology created in the lab and studies conducted in the lab to be able to explore technology and get informed about more fundamental questions surrounding, for instance, haptic perception or responses to controlled interventions. At the same time, especially given the profound influence of social, cultural, and other contextual factors in the experience of (social) touch, we need technology that is used by actual people (this is one of the things I am trying to do with HEY bracelet; get social touch technology into people’s hands, or rather, around their wrists in this case). Only when technology is really ‘out there’ and being used and reappropriated by people as they go about their daily lives can we really see the potential impact of digital touch. This is why sociological perspectives on digital touch are crucial to understanding the real impact and role of technologies. During the workshop, I think Jason Archer (University of Illinois at Chicago) did a fantastic job of constantly providing a historical and societal lens through which to view haptic technology that provided structure to the discussions.
To conclude, to move the field of digital touch communication forward we require various sources of knowledge from a diversity of disciplines. It is only through making a conscious effort to understand the perspectives of others on the topic that we can truly begin to answer some of the questions outlined here. We do not all have to be hybrid engineers/designers/neuroscientists/physiologist/sociologist/etc. to work on digital touch. We do need to meet, talk, and collaborate. After all, as they say: many hands make light work.