Interactive Skin and Social Touch

Iskin (2015), MusicSticker. Photo Credit: Oliver Dietze

This case study consisted of three weeks of exploratory engagement with the Saarland HCI Lab, organised through a series of research activities including creative and speculative methods. It builds upon ongoing interdisciplinary collaborations with computer scientists, engineers and HCI designers setting out to stimulate and explore the potential relations between interactive skin and social touch.

We brought a social research perspective on touch to the Lab, using remote methods as a physical visit was not possible in the context of Covid-19, with the objectives to:  

  1. Describe and map the social, sensory and semiotic aspects interactive skin and its design; 
  2. Explore the social and sensory (potentials) of interactive skin design for digital touch communication;  
  3. Stimulate socially orientated critiques to inform future designs of interactive skin; 
  4. Contribute to remote methodologies for researching digitally mediate touch. 

In preparation we reviewed the Lab’s outputs expanding to include key publications that were cited as informing their past interactive skin designs. Alongside this, we distilled socially orientated critical concepts from skin studies literature which we used to provoke and interrogate the sociality of interactive skin. 

In week 1 we were given a real-time video tour of the Lab by one of the team, he narrated the space and we had the opportunity to ask questions and guide the focus of the camera. This gave us a sense of their fabrication facilities, methods, and spaces. We interviewed active researchers individually to discuss how they understand and account for the social through their current work on interactive skin. 

Themes emerging through the interviews and review of the literature inspired the design of online probes that were ‘launched’ as a pack at the start of week 2. Each day participants were also emailed provocations that sought to attune them to the social and sensorial dimensions of touch through playful activities. 

The interactive skin researchers’ probe returns (responses) were used to inform a speculative workshop on the future of interactive skin in week 3. A central part of this speculative design-orientated workshop was an imaginative exercise to plot the key social considerations, possibilities and challenges for interactive skin across various planes (e.g. societal, ethical, technological and interaction design). We participated in this workshop as both facilitators and collaborators. 

Screenshot from Workshop Activity

The three weeks of remote fieldwork with the Lab closed with ‘exit interviews’ where participants were given unstructured space to discuss topics that had arisen for them through the case study, and to reflect on if/how the process impacted on their engagement with the sociality of touch and (interactive) skin. 

What next? 

We are continuing our collaboration with the lab through the development of a speculative fiction for interactive skin building from the workshop. Through our analysis we are identifying core themes to inform the design of interactive skin. We are also writing about the engagement process as a method to bring critical social science into productive collaborations with computer scientists, HCI designers and engineers.