Haptics For All: Democratizing the Haptic Design Ecosystem

Guest post, by Hannah Elbaggari (@hmhrchl)

Where would you go to learn about haptics? This blog? A mentor? The World Wide Web? Haptics (also referred to as ‘digital touch’) has grown from a sub-field of mechanical engineering in the 90s to encompass areas of robotics, human-computer interaction (HCI), the creative arts, and more. It has been able to expand the physical, psychological, and emotional salience of touch for well-being, development, and connection. Yet haptics remains complex and difficult to learn, regardless of educational background. While we all inherently know something about touch, few beyond a small number of specialists have taken this knowledge and applied it to the design of digitally mediated touch experiences.

How can we create a resource that provides an empowering, inclusive, and reflexive design ecosystem for all? My recent work addresses this question through a participatory design approach. I aim to bridge a gap in haptics knowledge accessibility through principles of design justice, and to create a haptics web-based resource that provides an empowering and inclusive design ecosystem. I also hope to contribute to a broader definition of ‘haptician’; one that expands beyond mainstream representations by identifying accessibility and inclusivity needs for the future of haptics.

The Access Gap

It is well known that sharing haptics is difficult without experiencing it firsthand – and designing these experiences is even harder with the multitude of applications, perceptual concepts, devices, and so on. Yet, individuals remain experts in their own lived experiences, whether that be topical, experiential, or technical. Is there a way to uplift specialized haptics knowledge for a larger collaboration and knowledge sharing ecosystem?

Accessibility for people interested in haptics starts at who has access to the knowledge and hardware. Currently, access to haptics resources is limited outside of academia and other Western systems. Haptics design and knowledge sharing has been distributed within academia, though these efforts often neglect to mention designers outside of the Eurocentric, STEM-aligned, technical sphere.

Right now, there are no commonly recognized design principles for haptics, nor is there a single comprehensive resource for people to turn to outside of technical and academic spaces. In an interview I conducted about the current haptic design ecosystem, one haptician asked: If you want to write something about haptics, where do you go? If it’s not peer reviewed, where do you go?” Another stated: “It’s complex for people to get into the field.” But why?

In some of my preliminary browsing I attempted to find a space where the most discussion about haptics was happening online or locally. What I found was difficult to articulate since the climate of information seeking, haptics papers, and general conceptual and technical questions were immensely wide spread over many different sources including conference papers, blog posts, servers (like Discord), forums, and more. Additionally, navigating this space can be daunting if you do not know what you are looking for or where to find it.

While there have been recognizable efforts in expanding haptics knowledge (such as LearnHaptics, HapticsLabs, HapticsClub Podcast, Nonpolynomial, OOOhack, DIY haptic gloves, and many more), community standards for who can design haptics can be particularly limited for a growing design ecosystem (e.g. in some technical disciplines; a novice haptician might mean an engineer-in-training). Novice haptic designers – people that are new to design and/or haptics – are required to seek out resources that prioritize specific backgrounds, narrowing terms like “the novice” and “the haptician”. This approach primarily informs those aligned with a Western STEM academic field and underestimates groups who may benefit from these resources such as DIY learners, artists, and interdisciplinary creatives.

Hapticians’ Perspectives: “Trying to read the science is so obtuse”

My focus mostly remains on those that are currently not considered or prioritized in haptics design education and resource systems. In my recent project, I started by talking to individuals within the field of haptics that have specialized knowledge on what that periphery may look like for consumers, users, designers, and curious minds. Each participant comes from varying backgrounds of education and personal interest that has brought them to the world of haptics. Through semi-structured interviews, we discussed perspectives on accessible haptic design, resource availability, empowerment, and inclusivity in the field.

My intention is to provide a wide representation of perspectives from people working in a periphery of haptics to help characterize what and who is currently seen as a “designer”, “haptician”, “novice”, and “expert” in their eyes. As one interviewee pointed out, it’s a very diverse field and I don’t know any expert that are the master of everything in this subject. Comments like these exemplify the shifting design ecosystem that requires a revisiting of terminology to ground experience-based perspectives. Furthermore, it will be important to establish what hapticians of alternative knowledge backgrounds need to thrive for an empowering and inclusive environment.

The original idea for the structure of a community-based, collaborative haptic design resource

A Proposed Solution

Alongside these hapticians’ perspecitves, I also gathered initial feedback on a low fidelity prototype of a web-based haptics resource called HapHub (this name is still being workshopped). I have been inviting participants to test out this initial design and comment on what they envision as most engaging and helpful for those curious about haptics. What is qualitatively different about the HapHub’s structure and approach is that while it aims to educate on haptic concepts, it also intends to reflexively reframe the role of a designer, researcher, and haptician. Informed by the interdisciplinary nature of haptics, this resource centers community, discussion, and collaboration.

Lo-fidelity prototype snapshot. This prototype is not the exact one shown to participants but is an in-progress prototype that our research team is working on by informing the design with interview data to develop it further.

As a rapidly growing design field, haptics can benefit from an increased visionary pool of designers to continue to provide rich, touch-based experiences. Reflecting on the Design Justice Network Principles, designers in this sense are seen as facilitators designing with rather than for people, while remaining reflexive and recognizing the potential threat to the matrix of domination technology has on society. My research stems from the call to design from the margins that addresses “structures of oppression and marginalization that shape people’s life chances and access to resources, power, visibility, livelihood, and health outcomes” (Sasha Costanza Chock, We Who Engage Podcast S1E2).

Typically, research on periphery groups has roots in anti-racist, anti-colonial, and feminist methodologies. As described by Mariam Asad, design labor and practice must be “considered on racial, cultural, and economic grounds to challenge norms on what counts as design, who gets to design, and where design is produced globally”. Drawing on the work of justice-based scholars and collaborative research, I propose that haptics must consider reflexive relationships as they relate to knowledge accessibility for its designers.

I write for curious minds and creatives as they seek out haptic design, but also for researchers and educators of haptics to recognize potential implicit biases and systemic inequalities that might exist in their work. I personally have a stake in this topic of research as a mixed-race woman of color; a graduate student in the field of haptics without a formal engineering background. Yet I also recognize that I come from a potentially different position of privilege and marginalization, therefore there will be areas of inequality and marginalization I do not and have not experienced. Not only does this mean that I identify with research in this topic, but that I have my own experiences and opinions about marginalization and accessibility of haptic knowledge and resources.

In turn, my hopes with this approach are to design with others that are active in the field of haptics, but equally share a personal interest in expanding thoughtful haptics knowledge, sharing, and accessibility.

I would like to acknowledge my lab, SPIN, Raquel Robinson, and my undergraduate volunteers (Tommy Nguyen, Angel Bao, Erin Chong), for their thoughtful discussion and provocative influence on the development of this work. Lastly, I thank Karon MacLean for her fundamental guidance and countless instances of inspiration and insight into the 20+ year haptics design ecosystem.

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