Unlocking Touch

Unlocking Touch is a collaboration between Lisa May Thomas, dance artist, filmmaker and researcher and the InTouch project.  

The collaboration culminated in the production of a prototype participatory binaural sound performance, titled Unlocking Touch. The piece is designed for listeners to encounter on their own, in their own homes.  The narrative explores one person’s experience of UK Lockdown and touch through the theme of loneliness in Covid-times. At a higher-level, Unlocking Touch uses binaural technology to experiment with the relationship between sound and touch including how binaural sound can be used to provoke or evoke touch, and how physical touch can be incorporated into a digital sound scape, which is pertinent to the design of touch for augmented and virtual reality experiences. 

Unlocking Touch theorises, and presents an experience of, an extended trajectory of touch centred around four touch zones – interior, direct, proximal and environmental. The four touch zones are described and explored in a short sensory methods film (Figure 1), edited by Julia Marie Schönheit, which you can watch here.

Figure 1: Screenshots from the Unlocking Touch sensory methods film. Internal touch // Direct touch // Proximal touch // Environmental touch. 

These four touch zones emerged from the Unlocking Touch research participant diaries and InTouch research, which together with the team’s creative practices provided the starting point for the fictional script for Unlocking Touch. The script is novel and experimental in that it includes participatory touch practices developed around the four touch zones and participant experiences of being ‘locked-down’ through Covid-19.  Guided by a narrator, listeners participate with her movements as she travels through the past, the present, and her remarkable transformative lockdown experiences to reveal and share a new world of touch. 

The development of Unlocking Touch  

Phase 1  

This phase brought together dance artists, arts and social science researchers and creative technologists to create audio-visual diaries around the theme of ‘expanded touch in lockdown environments’ – to map and document experiences of touch over the period of Covid19 restrictions around physical distancing and avoidance of physical contact. This provided materials (photographs, writing, audio and video recordings) with which to explore the changing nature of our relations toward each other through our negotiation of physically distanced moments of exchange and the use of digital technologies; and toward our surroundings – of home, the local outdoors and nature. Phase 1 drew on the diary method used in the dance project The Touch Diaries, created by Lisa May Thomas in 2016 and supported by Arts Council England, which explored ‘absence’ as a central theme.

Phase 2  

This phase of the project used the diary materials to interrogate touch through sound and touch as sound. The four touch zones outlined above provided a narrative arch for the development of the Unlocking Touch experience.  

Figure 2: Image of the four touch zones as a narrative arch for Unlocking Touch  

As the project evolved we extended the collaboration to include David Lane (playwright), Helen Skiera (Binaural sound maker and sound direction), and Kirsty Cox (actor).  Through interdisciplinary exchange we experimented with the methodological potentials of working across movement, writing, binaural sound-design and social science to understand touch and its digital sound futures. In addition to spoken narrative, the script uses binaural sound to create the narrator and participant’s spatial relationship to one another, and generates a sense of location through binaural sound-effects. It also works with the physicality of touch and movement through the use of sound and invitations to the participant to touch and move. 

Figure 3: Experimenting with the position of the binaural-head for the sound-scape of the nest-scene // Sound studio image of Kirsty in the nest with the binaural-head // The floor-plan of the main character’s flat. // The ‘score-sheet’ of the script mapping the touch zone, time, location, body movement of characters and participants and sound-effect // Exploring and mapping the script.  

Unlocking Touch is in its final stages of development, and we are currently test/previewing the experience with participants to support and feed into a final development phase. The piece will be launched/released in May 2022.  

The first phase of the collaboration was supported by Studio Wayne McGregor. The second phase of the project was supported by the Research England’s Higher Education Innovation Fund (HEIF), administered by UCL Innovation & Enterprise, and InTouch ERC funding.