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The Aesthetics of Touch in Interaction Design

Nima Motamedi1

School of Interactive Arts & Technology, Simon Fraser University Vancouver, Canada {nimam}

Abstract. The sense of touch has been traditionally neglected in aesthetics. However, interaction design seems to always require some level of tactility or body activity for the experience. In this paper, I first give an overview of the historical arguments against a tactile aesthetics and offer reasons why these reasons are no longer valid. In the second section, I briefly present two design projects exploring unique tactile interfaces in an attempt to reconcile tactility with the aesthetics of interaction. Categories and Subject Descriptors A.0 [GENERAL]: Conference Proceedings H.5.2: User interfaces, User-centered design Author Keywords: Tactile interfaces, touch interfaces, aesthetics

1 Introduction: Do Not Touch

Visit a traditional art gallery or museum in North America and you will surely encounter sculptures, textiles, pottery, and other physical artifacts which at first instinct you will want to reach out and touch. Unfortunately, this satisfaction is curtailed by the ominous sign hung nearby exclaiming Do Not Touch. Here, our tactile sense is denied to participate in the experience. Contrast this by visiting a new media exhibit or using interactive products. Most interactivity involves some degree of tactility whether it is at a low-level such as pressing buttons on a keyboard or at a higher-level using the entire body in an immersive environment. These contrasting stories signify a shift in the way we perceive and appreciate an aesthetic experience. In philosophy, this distinction is between an analytic approach to aesthetics and a pragmatist. The emerging domain of Aesthetics of Interaction has been aligned with pragmatism because its a theory of aesthetics that emphasizes the socio-cultural context of use, and how people experience the world as embodied subjects [4, 11]. Since there is no privileging of one sense modality over another, one agenda for pragmatist aesthetics of interaction is to revisit the previously neglected senses and determine how it contributes to building an aesthetic experience. In this paper, I revisit the neglected sense of touch and discuss how tactility can be incorporated in the aesthetics of interaction by presenting two design projects on this theme. The overall structure of the paper is divided into two sections. In the first section, I will outline the main arguments historically given to why touch can not mediate an aesthetic experience and show how these reasons are no longer valid. In the second part of the paper, I will present two design projects that were created to explore the aesthetic potential of tactility.

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10/3/2007Designing Pleasurable Products and Interfaces, 22-25 August 2007, University of Art and Design Helsinki

2 Touch: The Neglected Sense

Western philosophy has traditionally denied the aesthetic potential for the tactile or bodily senses privileging instead the visual and auditory [2]. But there is growing criticism to the occularcentric obsession in western society especially from interaction design and HCI. In 1949, philosopher Frances Herring reviewed the arguments made against touch as an aesthetic sense and categorized them as being psychological, technical, and philosophical [5]. In this next section, I want to contribute to Herrings original rebuttal by offering new arguments taken from the sciences and philosophy that topples visions hegemony in art and design. By doing so, I want to clear design space to explore tactility in interaction. 2.1 Psychological Argument The psychological argument against touch is that it is predominately utilitarian in function, so it is incapable of apprehending aesthetics or ministering to reason the same way vision can [5]. Herring argued that this mode of thinking is dogmatic because it ignores the development of tactile arts in other cultures. More recently, studies suggest that pictures are not entirely visual representations [7]. People who are visually impaired are able to recognize objects in pictures when its contours are embossed. Using these tactile images, some people were also able to understand perspective which was long thought to be only attainable through vision. The results from tactile pictures complicate the argument that touch is purely biological and has no psychological purpose. 2.2 Technical Argument The technical argument against touch is that unlike vision and hearing, the tactile sense lacks an ordering system to communicate the experience to others. As a result, tactility is always private and inexpressible [5]. In graphic design, there are well established sciences on color theory, information visualization, composition, etc This argument says that a similar set of principles do not exist for touch. However this is untrue. Our skin and tactile perception have distinct traits from other sensory modes and is able to gather information about the world that other senses can not. The pioneering work of scientist David Katz reveals a rich and deep set of tactile properties and ordering principles. Touch is unique among the senses because it is the only mode that gathers information on the innards of an object [6]. In contrast to vision which retrieves information on the surface of objects, touching is the only way we can learn about an objects depth, texture, weight, density, and temperature [For an excellent source see 6] through our contact and manipulation with it. Another important characteristic is called active touch [6]. Active touch is the action of scanning the hand over a surface in order to receive information on the objects texture, material, and surface of an object. When considering vision or hearing, it is harder to see and discern an object when it is moving.


10/3/2007Designing Pleasurable Products and Interfaces, 22-25 August 2007, University of Art and Design Helsinki

2.3 Philosophical The last argument is that touch is incapable of expressing larger and deeper life experiences which means that tactile aesthetics would be shallow and superficial [5]. This argument assumes a disembodied view of a person where experience resides in the mind and occurs cognitively. This perspective of a person is increasingly being criticized in interaction design as being too narrow and incomplete. As computing is being embedded in the physical world, theories of embodied interaction [3] and feltexperiences [8] are becoming more useful in understanding how people experience and live with technology. At the core of these theories of embodiment is a mutual emphasis on the role that the physical world and our bodily senses have in how we orient ourselves in the world. Touch is the sensory mode that integrates our experience of the world with that of ourselves. The very essence of felt life is molded by the tactile, haptic, and peripheral blurred vision of the physical world [10]. Thus, the importance of the physical world and our body is a cornerstone in interaction design. 2.4 Recapturing Touch There is no compelling reason to deny the potential of touch in mediating an aesthetic experience. Touch and physicality have a large and important role in aesthetics of interaction. The next session will present two design projects that were created to explore the aesthetic potential of tactility in enabling an aesthetic experience. The first project is entitled Keep in Touch and was designed to create a unique tactile experience for couples in long distance relationships. The second project, Stay in Touch, was an installation that compelled two strangers to touch and feel each other through a fabric.

3 Tactile Interfaces
3.1 Design Keep in Touch [9] is a fabric touch-screen installed in two separate locations each projecting a shadowy and blurry image of the other site. When a couple approaches the fabric, they see a blurry silhouette of their partner. Only when they touch their partners blurred body does their features come into focus. If they let go, the body becomes blurry again. This sensorial mapping [1] allows couples to touch each others digital bodies with their hands and feel each other with their eyes. The fabric is also an ambient interface displaying a faint shadowy video of the other location.


10/3/2007Designing Pleasurable Products and Interfaces, 22-25 August 2007, University of Art and Design Helsinki

Fig. 1 Touching the blurry body brings it into focus

3.2 Active Touch Physically touching or hugging someone is a very special activity and attempting to simulate or substitute this act may not be desirable or even achievable. The central concept of the design was to create a unique tactile interface that doesnt attempt to simulate or substitute really touching a loved one, but to give couples an alternative tactile modality until they are reunited. The inspiration for the interface was the interplay between the tactile and visual senses. During intense moments of intimacy, people often close their eyes to reduce the visual sense in order to heighten the tactile. Keep in Touch maps the motion of touch with blurred vision to create a novel hybrid sensory mode for exploring alternative ways of expressing intimacy.

4 Stay in Touch
4.1 Design Stay in Touch is an interactive installation designed to compel two strangers to touch and feel each other through a fabric wall. An interactive fabric screen was hung across a room separating two people. The strangers have to touch each other through the fabric in order to interact with the digital media. When they touch each other, images of a body slowly fade in and disappear if they let go.


10/3/2007Designing Pleasurable Products and Interfaces, 22-25 August 2007, University of Art and Design Helsinki

Fig. 2 Two strangers touch each other through the fabric

4.2 Volume Touch Another unique characteristic of touch is our ability to feel and distinguish objects through an intermediate layer [6]. Imagine placing a cloth over a cup and then touching it. You can feel the cloth and discern properties about it, and at the same time you can feel and learn about the cup. This capability of touch was the inspiration for the tactile interface for this installation. Because the strangers can not see each other, they have to move their hands across the fabric and find the fingers of the other person. Touching different areas of the fabric will cause different images to fade in, and touching both hands will cause images to overlap.

5 Aesthetics of Touch and Interaction

These two projects are the beginnings of a larger thesis on the aesthetics of touch and its role in enabling an aesthetic experience with technology. As theories of embodiment continue to grow in relevancy in interaction design, so does the demand for a deeper understanding on the mechanics and meaning of touch in its role in our experience with technology. Since touch has been historically neglected or marginalized in analytical aesthetics, a pragmatist aesthetic of interaction has a unique role in revisiting and integrating touch back into discourse and practice. The crucial challenge is to understand the interplay between all the senses and discover new ways of combining sense modalities to create synesthestic interfaces that are holistic, integrating our cognitive senses with our bodily senses.


10/3/2007Designing Pleasurable Products and Interfaces, 22-25 August 2007, University of Art and Design Helsinki

I would like to thank professors Thecla Schiphorst, Maia Engeli, and Diane Gromala at Simon Fraser University their guidance and discussions during the development of the research project.

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