Touch-in’ the Virtual: Reflections

By Dr Nikoleta Giannoutsou, In-Touch

Our June “Touch-in’ the Virtual” workshop aimed to explore the conceptualisation and experience of ‘touch’ in virtual environments with a diverse group of academics and industry practitioners. These participants came from a wide range of domains, including VR, game design, fashion, sociology, engineering and philosophy. The event, held at the UCL Knowledge Lab, was organized by the In-Touch team in collaboration with Dr Gijs Huisman from the University of Applied Sciences’ Digital Society School and Dr Bruna Petreca from the Royal College of Art. Our aim was to look at the past and the present of touch in VR (asking questions such as “what are the current state of the art tactile technologies and how are they different from early haptic applications?”). We also attempted a “journey” to the future, imagining touch technologies and exploring their implications in our lives and society. In this post I discuss why we decided to explore touch in Virtual Reality in this workshop.

Why Virtual Reality?

I will answer this question with another question: Where is touch happening?

Most haptic technologies – from gloves to vests, to mid-air haptics and haptic suits – emphasise the neurophysiological dimension of touch, i.e., they look at touch as an extremely complex network of sensors and receptors. But is touch only a physical sense? If we think how we feel when a loved one touches us then we easily realise that touch is very much connected to our emotions (Classen 2012). Furthermore, if we consider all the rules regulating what touch is allowed, and where and when – (Parisi 2018) then it becomes apparent that how we perceive touch is also shaped by the society in which we live in. This indicates that meaning in touch is generated from our interaction with others and that this meaning is contextually bound (Van Erp & Toet 2015) – i.e., who is touching, what is the culture of the people involved in the touch, and what are the special circumstances?

 Why Virtual reality? (Revisited)

A key concept in Virtual Reality is immersion. Immersion is grounded on engaging us by generating strong emotional experiences through our senses (mainly using visual and aural channels: for example, standing on the edge of a cliff in VR can generate the same emotional experience as if the cliff edge was real). As I tried to show earlier, emotions and the other senses are also important in creating meaning around touch. Thus, VR seems to offer a fertile ground for engineering critical elements that can create a valid tactile experience – although the physical experience might be very primitive (e.g. just a vibration): “Even if the reproduction of touch falls short of fully synthesizing the full range of tactile sensations, even low-definition can be emotionally meaningful.” (Parisi, cited in Candy 2019). As a result, various applications of haptic technologies integrated in Virtual Reality have surfaced in supporting touch in contexts like training, fitness, rehabilitation, gaming, industrial design and the arts, although there are voices challenging the maturity of these technologies to function outside the lab (Stone 2019).

 Looking to the future

Our effort to look to the future of digital touch came down to asking a key question: What are our expectations from the technology? The answers to this question fall under two broad categories: The first involves technologies which mimic touch. To see the future through this lens I will use an extract from David Parisi (2018: Loc 5321).

What if… “Simulation technologies become so precise that they can emulate the feeling of a hug from a distant loved one, or so accurate that they could reconstruct the exact sensation of an ocean breeze blowing against the face …” – What then?

Following this path quite often takes us to dystopian futures where life happens in the virtual world which is nevertheless situated in a downgraded physical world. It seems like a long-lasting drug. This is not to deny that there are also cases like the ones mentioned above (e.g. medicine, training etc.), where the positive impact of simulated touch is undoubtable. However, technologies which mimic or confirm touch is not the only way this might happen. The second set of answers involves technologies which aim at enriching or generating new forms of haptic experiences (Kelly 2014). So the key question which I will try to explore next is how Virtual reality can offer opportunities for the generation of such experiences.

 Virtual materiality

Virtual reality is a new materiality (Kozel 1994) which as a consequence can generate new meanings around touch. When looking at virtual objects inhabiting VR we realise that their materiality is different in comparison to the physical world, in that you can reach out and touch objects which are not normally accessible because they are, for example, dangerous or rare. Or you can also touch someone in a social VR environment that you wouldn’t be able to touch physically because of the distance. Furthermore, elements related to the impact of touch (e.g. fragility, decay, destruction, death), are programmable and thus negotiable and volatile in the virtual world.

In one of our “hands-on” workshop experiences, we tried out an IKEA VR experience where the user was supposed to ‘navigate’ an IKEA kitchen in order to make pancakes. When we asked one participant – a game designer – to  play, he followed a rather unusual and unorthodox routine in collecting the necessary ingredients, for example, taking eggs out of the fridge and tossing them over to the kitchen surface in the same way one might toss a ball. Some of the eggs fell off the surface but left no mess on the kitchen floor; he could still pick the eggs up in one piece and use them for his pancakes all the same.

Touch in the Virtual 1Touch in the Virtual 2

Fig 1: Tossing the eggs from the fridge to the kitchen counter. Stills from the video recording of the workshop “Touch-in’ the Virtual”

Similarly, in the “Hold the world” VR experience designed for the Science Museum, London, the user can grab a butterfly with both hands – the way you might grab a piece of wood – and stretch it to make it bigger.

Touch in the Virtual 3

Touch in the Virtual 4
Fig.2: Ways to grab a butterfly in VR – Stills from a video walkthrough of the “Hold the world” VR experience

And again, in another virtual world, the rules around the same objects might be completely different (an egg falling off the floor might result in the blossoming of a flower). In essence, this virtual materiality implies new ways of interaction with things – i.e. how you touch something may have very different consequences – and this therefore has the potential of generating new tactile experiences.

How is virtual materiality related to digitally mediated touch?

I think that the key point is that haptic technologies building on immersion and offering a connection between the new virtual materiality and the physical sense of touch have the potential to expand our experiences not so much in what we feel in terms of physical touch but mainly in the range of new emotions and meanings we could possibly forge to this touch.

Closing remark

“Humans were always far better at inventing tools than using them wisely” (Harari 2018: Loc 224).

Digitally mediated touch is an ongoing challenge for technological development. At the moment a lot of effort is put into the technological rather than the social aspects. However, given the enormous potential of these technologies, and under the light of Harari’s comment, it is critical to also look at the implications these technologies might have in our lives, and in society as a whole, aiming towards first understanding what it means to use these technologies wisely and then towards finding ways to support such use.


Candy B. (April 2019) Keeping Virtual Reality Environments Harassment Free

Classen, C. (2012) The Deepest Sense. A Cultural History of Touch. University of Illinois Press.

Harari, Y. N. (2018) 21 Lessons for the 21st Century. Random House. Kindle Edition.

Hold the world – Walkthrough of the VR experience: (last accessed 29 July 2019).

Kozel, S. (1994) Spacemaking: Experiences of a Virtual Body. Available in (extended version available In Dance Theatre Journal 11(3) p. 12-13, 31, 46-47).

Parisi, D. (2018) Archaeologies of Touch: Interfacing with Haptics from Electricity to Computing. University of Minnesota Press. Kindle Edition.

Stone, B. (March 2019) Haptics for VR and AR – Where Are We … Really?

van Erp, J. B. F., & Toet, A. (2015) Social Touch in Human Computer Interaction. Frontiers in Digital Humanities, 2, 1–14.

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