Technologies of Touch: Rendering physical tactile sensations into virtual online shopping environments

Guest post, by Dr. Margot Racat, Professor of Marketing, IDRAC Business School (@Margot_bb, LinkedIn, Research Gate)

Cosmetics are among the most sensory products around. Almost ten years ago when I was working at l’Oréal, the worldwide cosmetic group, they were about to launch their first virtual try-on make-over, and I began to realise that we needed to be asking much more about the ways we might understand and feel products via a screen.

At that point in time, very few haptic technologies supported virtual testing and there was even less knowledge about how to connect a product’s tactile properties with a virtual environment and the final consumer. This gap provided the starting point for my current collaborative research project Technologies of Touch.

Over the past decade more immersive devices and haptic possibilities have been developed, and importantly, some of these have been launched on the consumer market. For instance, the recent release of the Playstation Dual Sense controller for the PS5 in 2020 has had a huge impact on consumers. This enables gamers to feel the virtual environment with high fidelity haptic feedback, a type of vibration-based feedback that is in part already pretty well-known to us in our daily routines via our smartphones. In less than a decade, we’ve come to be able to attach a meaning to the different vibrations a phone can offer and, most of all, to discriminate between each one when it is activated (e.g., message, call, notification, etc.). In online environments there are a number of barriers to realising the tangibility of a product, notably related to experiencing the material properties of a product such as its texture. So while haptic rendering is not new to many people, it remains far from being able to overcome the nuanced experiences of touching an object.

Fig 1: Product testing. Image credit: Hippopx

However, while a lack of touch and tactile properties in these interactions might seem strange at one level, at another level, this tactile lack does not fundamentally disrupt consumers’ understanding of a product experience. In part, this is because they compensate for a lack of touch through their engagement with the visual or sound as ‘touch alternatives’. Yet conversely, the more the haptic is brought into these environments via interfaces, the less consumers will perceive barriers to their experiences, enabling interfaces to become seamlessly and fully integrated into the sensory processing of information, and cognitively accepted as necessary to mediating access to a product. This technical assumption is supported with upcoming technology from our partners Interhaptics, which enables the creation of textures for high fidelity virtual environments.

Our collaboration with Eric Vezzoli and his team aims to investigate how consumers perceive, identify and use such virtual texture simulations, in relation with the visualized on screen tactile properties of a product. We argue that despite their relatively low familiarity with haptic technologies, consumers are familiar with technologies that require both their touch and voice to command, control and further interact virtually with people and objects. This leads to questions of how much consumers can relate the intrinsic tactile properties of the interface with the intrinsic tactile properties of the product.

Fig 2: Example of tactile rendering of 3D surfaces via a screen

Our findings have shown that consumers can overcome the ‘intangible barrier’ when it comes to feeling a product online via alternative mechanisms such as providing more hedonic and fun experiences (e.g., virtual try-on). Moreover, despite consumers’ low ability to perceive a cosmetic’s tactile properties through digital interfaces, my 2016 research with Sonia Capelli demonstrated that consumers still make more virtual purchases.

Yet, as my more recent research with Margherita Pagani and Charles Hofacker shows, when consumers interact with an interface using their tactile sense (rather than voice only or voice and touch together), this leads to an outcome of higher personal engagement. Our newly published research takes further steps towards investigating the intangibility barrier for online product testing: we show that when consumers imagine that, the tactile information delivered on-screen via haptic rendering technology is related to the expected tactile stimulation of the product, they perceive that the technology provides sufficient information to facilitate product evaluation. We deepened these preliminary results by showing that ‘texturing’ the interface touchscreen with different tactile sensations (e.g., by providing a coarse sensation related to the exfoliating product properties) leads to higher attitude and behavioural outcomes. This means that consumers process the texture of the screen as an informational cue for online purchases, and perceive the technology as a source of information for decision-making.

Finally, these results are moderated by individual need for touch (NFT) such as the more a consumer relies on the sense of touch for information (i.e., instrumental NFT), the higher their ability for discriminating tactile sensations via a digital interface. According to their high or low level of NFT, consumers may be more or less frustrated by the proposed haptic rendering sensation that aim to relate to the product tactile cues (i.e., to provide tactile information with high fidelity via the interface).

Next steps: hybrid product experiences

These findings are now being extended with our current research, which aims to test haptic rendering technologies with our partners Interhaptics. We hope to validate and extend our initial findings to show how rendering tactile sensations in relation to virtual product visualizations can help consumers to better understand and feel a product. The potential effect of this is to envision future hybrid product experiences: testing virtual prototypes in-store, reducing storage, and lower product logistics. It also means potentially reducing the impact of consumption on our environment.

Moreover, it leads us to question what ‘haptic’ and what ‘touching’ can mean. In a landscape of hybrid relations, the sense of touch is becoming more and more a sense of distance whilst at the same time being a sense of contact. Technologies can help us reach out to distant objects and people, but will it deeply modify our sense of touch to the point of changing our perception?

Time will tell, but to date we have already integrated new ways of touching: sliding and swiping do not have any secret to many of us. Another question that interests us as researchers centres on whether haptic rendering technology should aim to reproduce actual and physical tactile sensations. For instance, when purchasing clothes, does the technology need to actually re-create the real-life sensation of the fabrics or should the haptic rendering be a proxy that any consumers have “learnt” to identify with this tactile characteristic of the fabrics? If we are to embrace new digital tactile environments, will these come with new haptic sensations and, will we begin to learn and practice new ways of touching? Technologies may lead us towards new experiences of touch that we are yet to discover.

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