NeoTouch is a Speculative Design project envisioning the future of haptic technology. It takes the form of a communication device based on a brain-computer-interface which allows the wearer to experience touch at a distance. This post discusses the project’s design methods used to interrogate the ethical and social aspects of digital communication, and its effects on our physical safety.
At the start of this project, I looked into the connection between physical and emotional closeness and wondered if I could create a sense of intimacy without proximity. I decided to focus on touch as the most intimate and emotive way to connect and communicate with another person and on haptics as the technological equivalent.
The initial design process included a series of exploratory experiments, creating body-borne devices that used first mechanical and later electronic and digital ways to connect two people by translating data or the movement of one body into haptic impulses on the other. These early experiments – despite their technical limitations – created a sense of presence and connection to another person. However, as readers of this blog, you will probably be aware of the sensory limitations of current haptic technology when compared with the holistic experience of human touch. Speculative Design offered me a way to explore what a future of digital touch might look like.
Figure 3 (left): Haptic body augmentation device 1. Figure 4 (right): Haptic body augmentation device 3. Image credits: Christine Wurth
I began by researching existing studies and developments in relevant technology and science projects. Extending current trends and weak signals, I then designed the speculative device NeoTouch (Figure 8, below). The technology builds on the idea of a brain-computer-interface (BCI). A transducer attaches to the skin behind the ear and connects wirelessly to a network of nano-electronics in the brain. Rather than communicating through the skin, it simulates the experience of touching and being touched directly in the brain by stimulating relevant brain areas (the somatosensory and motor cortex). Externally, communication with others is then controlled through a phone.
This digital experience of touching and being touched is mapped onto the physical body and in this way merges the digital and physical self to a whole new level, challenging our current perception of the body.
Privacy, intimacy and consent in the digital realm
There are a lot of issues around privacy, intimacy and consent in our digital and physical lives that we are still struggling to properly address. Imagining a technology that maps digital interactions onto and into the physical body blurs the boundaries between the digital and physical self and with it these issues merge and amplify. In this way, the project explores the concept of a future digital intimacy while simultaneously addressing very current issues around ethics in technology, consent, physical agency, and digital privacy. Overall, it asks how the merging of our body and technology might not just change the way we interact but also affect our physical safety.
I found that even my early experiments had raised questions such as: What data is ‘taken’ from, or projected onto the body? Who has access to my body and my data? And who is allowed to ‘touch’ me? Speculative Design gave me the chance to not just imagine what this technology could look like, but rather use this as a starting point to then move on to critically look at the effects that living with such a technology would have on our society and social norms, as well as, our personal lives and sense of intimacy.
The physical prototype I made (above) became a hypothetical object around which I created critical scenarios through speculative storytelling. These allowed me to explore possible effects on the way we interact and connect: I wrote a fictional essay in the form of a magazine article set in the future, ten years after NeoTouch had been introduced to the market. This article, which includes the opinions and experiences of a range of experts and users, gave me the chance to create a multifaceted narrative around the positive and negative implications of the technology. Constantly relating back to our current experiences with and through technology this included thoughts such as: What are the social pressures on being digitally ‘available’ when the communication is touch-based? What is the haptic equivalent of online harassment? And what happens if your brain becomes hackable?
As part of this design phase, I also created a series of experiential short films exploring these topics, while experimenting with various narratives and styles. As the final stage of the project, I created a short film that follows five students that interact through NeoTouch. Their night escalates as personal boundaries are blurred and crossed when they pressure each other into sharing their experiences. In this film, I mapped the construction of digital communication that we know from our phones – as well as the vulnerabilities that come along with that – onto this haptic device and therefore amplified the implications.
Figure 9: NeoTouch, short film. By Christine Wurth
New lenses for NeoTouch in Covid-19
Social responses to the management of Covid-19 have created a new context for this project. Whilst acknowledging the devastating effects and difficult individual experiences that this pandemic has brought, it has also generated a sense of our all being in a large-scale social experiment, and raised questions of connection between intimacy and proximity that relate to those I try to address through this project. From the get-go, I struggled with the term ‘social distancing’ when what we clearly need is reality is social closeness despite physical distancing. We are searching for ways in which we can feel close, despite the necessary distance.
As social distancing measures and lockdown came in to effect, and people were separated more than usual, around me the interest in NeoTouch grew. This reflected my concerns around the quick adoption of new technologies to satisfy current needs with little concern about the long-term implications. However, despite the issues of privacy and ethics discussed here, I admit, right now I’d really like to hug my best friend. Even if only digitally.