Guest post, by Emilie B. Cohrt, Designer & Founder of Studio Cohrt, WORTH(COSME) Partnership Project ‘Øjenfryd’, MA Footwear London College of Fashion.
Fig 1. Film, Project Re:Connect, by Emilie B. Cohrt.
Project Re:Connect and the Footsie slippers were the end product of my MA Footwear degree conducted at the London College of Fashion. Within a speculative design context, the project explored how technologically innovative footwear artefacts have the potential to disrupt current digitally mediated distance communication, and provide richer multi-sensory products that allow users to engage in tactile displays of affection – even when they’re continents apart.
The project was largely inspired by personal experiences of adjusting close social relationships to transnational distances after having relocated from my native Copenhagen, DK to London in the pursuit of higher education. This move meant relearning how to communicate a broad spectrum of interpersonal closeness and emotional intimacies by means of present-day technologies to various people ranging from close family, to friends, to my long-term partner at the time. At the time of undertaking my Masters, I had been in London for several years and had first-hand experience of the social shortcomings of modern technology: my relationship had ended, I had felt very far away indeed during incidences of parental illness and consequent hospitalisation, and I had missed the birth of a new nephew by several months.
Fig 2. Playing footsie, Emilie B. Cohrt.
These moments of inadequate ability to meaningfully connect to loved ones coincided with my research into how the foot can be explored as a primary site for experienced/performed identities and interpersonal connectivity. Because of this confluence, the natural development of my Masters work was to direct my research towards addressing inadequate long-distance interpersonal communication by capturing and transmitting foot-to-foot touches in real time, unhindered by geographic boundaries. This would provide a new means of engaging with each other, adding depth and meaning to the experience of maintaining social relationships across distances. In theory, Footsie users would feel a deeper connectedness with their faraway loved ones, thereby making it easier to fulfil basic needs for social interaction and belonging, and positively affecting their physical and mental health.
Fig 3. Design development, Emilie B. Cohrt.
My experiences were far from unique. When it comes to interpersonal communication, geographic distance is the one of the most difficult problems to navigate in close relationships. While digital channels for mediating communication allow maintenance of social relationships, they are not without flaw as they are limited both in their capacity for sensory stimulation and in their immediacy as there is often a delay in getting a reply to text messages or phone calls (Dainton & Aylor, 2002). As a consequence of these sensory limitations of technologies, loneliness and feelings of social isolation are thought by many to be an increasingly widespread problem with significant negative impacts on physical and mental health (Holt-Lunstad et al., 2015, Hawkley & Caccioppo, 2010). It thus follows that we must either seek to alter the social structures and technological dependencies which have led to this connectedness paradox with its increasingly detrimental impacts to public health, or we must seek a much greater awareness and intentionality in our design and use of communication devices. The path of least resistance seems by far to be the latter. By creating a new, multi-sensory means of distance communication, technology has potential to solve the connectedness paradox, and potentially reduce loneliness statistics by providing a method of communicating that is better tailored to our biological and psychological makeup.
Fig 4. Footsie slippers technology, Emilie B. Cohrt.
How these interpersonal social intimacies are communicated through the foot is evident just by looking at the playful game of ‘footsie’ that is commonplace in close social relationships, taking place under dinner tables, on sofas, and during lazy weekend lie-ins and is often not a deliberate interaction between the participants. Touching feet to express affection and intimacy belongs to the casual social touches that we are often not aware of doing, but which has immense capacity to convey emotion and a strong sense of bondedness. Though no clinical studies have been conducted on this exact physical interaction, in the light of the research conducted for this project, it is plausible to suggest that playing footsie with a loved one may stimulate oxytocin production and have associated beneficial effects on psychophysiological health and well-being. The Footsie device captures the playfulness and intimacy of these foot-to-foot interactions and transmits them from one partner to the other across distances thereby conveying the intimate meanings of this social touching in ways traditional distance communication cannot. A vibrotactile array simulates the gentle stroking touches to the optimally pleasant velocity recorded in research (Huisman et al., 2016). These studies were combined with my own recorded observations of casual foot-to-foot touching between couples in everyday situations (e.g. on the sofa in front of the telly after dinner). These findings determined that caresses occurred at certain speeds determined by intent, and that interaction mainly happened sole-to-instep and vice-versa. It is these interactions that the Footsie slippers emulate and aim to enable couples to engage in at long distance.
When it comes to social relationships and interpersonal communication, studies have shown just how closely touches like these footsie interactions and emotions are linked even when no other sensory cues are present (Field, 2010). Touch can represent and communicate similar ideas and responses between the initiator and the receiver of the touch (Haans and Ijsselsteijn, 2006), and are thus very significant elements of social interpersonal interaction. This means different emotions are signalled with different types of touch, and a study determined that from the simple experience of a touch to the arm, the receiving person could identify the emotional significance of the touch with up to 83% accuracy without ever seeing the person touching (Field, 2010). And not only does touch convey a wide spectrum of intention and emotion, instantly and non-verbally, but the emotions that are elicited by touch are often very strong ones – just consider the difference between a brief touch from a comforting spouse and an equally short touch from a total stranger. Though the two might take place on the same part of the body – such as the hand – and be of equal strength and duration, the emotional responses evoked are vastly different even with no other communication taking place. In social relationships, touch is therefore an intrinsic and fundamental part of the way we interact and communicate. One can speak of social touch as a method of communication unto itself.
Fig 5. Footsie slippers in action, Emilie B. Cohrt.
The final product of project Re:Connect was intended to look both familiar and alien, ancient, and futuristic. Partly to ameliorate any sense of technological alienation, and partly to emphasise the primitive act of touch in a rather futuristic scope, the choice of ancient pre-last construction methods and natural sheepskin material to offset the hardware was very deliberate. This material juxtapositioning creates a timelessness intended to instigate conscious decision making about the extent to which we allow technology to replace human face-to-face interactions, how we can use new technologies as a therapeutic means of combating loneliness, and furthermore how these decisions need to be conscious and not accidental. The softly tactile sheepskin meets hard 3D printed resin casing: one holds the natural foot and is made by a millennia old craft, the other holds the digital touch and is not even decades old. These contrasts are designed to underline how we must increase awareness of the need to shape technology far more than technology is currently shaping us. Through products like the speculatively designed Footsies which enable long-distance couples to engage in an everyday non-verbal intimacy, the importance of touch to social and psychophysiological well-being is highlighted and the question of how globalised societies will choose to prioritise this communicative issue is raised.
You can see more of Emilie’s work at:
Beck, U. and Beck-Gernsheim, E. (2014) Distant Love – Personal Life in the Global Age, Cambridge: Polity
Dainton, M. and Aylor, B. (2002) ‘Patterns of Communication Channel Use in the Maintenance of Long‐distance Relationships’, Communication Research Reports, 19(2), pp.118-129.
Field, T. (2010) ‘Touch for Socioemotional and Physical Well-being: A Review’, Developmental Review, 30(4), pp.367-383.
Haans, A. and Ijsselsteijn, W. (2006) ‘Mediated Social Touch: a Review of Current Research and Future Directions’, Virtual Reality, 9(2-3), pp.149-159.
Hawkley, L.C. and Cacioppo, J.T. (2010) ‘Loneliness Matters: a Theoretical and Empirical Review of Consequences and Mechanisms’, Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 40(2), pp.218-227.
Holt-Lunstad, J., Smith, T. B., Baker, M., Harris, T., Stephenson, D. (2015), ‘Loneliness and Social Isolation as Risk Factors for Mortality: A Meta-Analytic Review’, Perspectives on Psychological Science, vol. 10 no. 2, pp. 227-237
Huisman, G., Frederiks, A.D., van Erp, J.B. and Heylen, D.K. (2016) ‘Simulating Affective Touch: Using a Vibrotactile Array to Generate Pleasant Stroking Sensations’, in International Conference on Human Haptic Sensing and Touch Enabled Computer Applications (pp. 240-250). Springer International Publishing.
Turkle, S. (2011) Alone Together, New York: Basic Books