After years of innovation, but little practical use, will the pandemic clarify the potential of haptics for both users and designers?

If we told you that, globally, we’re experiencing a crisis around the role touch plays in our everyday interactions, you’d likely be unsurprised. What and who we choose to make physical contact with is now fraught with unprecedented levels of anxiety, requiring a whole new subset of social protocols in order to navigate what once seemed basic. But what’s important to note is that the consternation many people felt about touch as a sensory modality was already present pre-pandemic. That’s why, at the start of the year, a joint initiative between the BBC and medical charity the Wellcome Collection – led by Prof Michael Banissy from Goldsmiths University of London – set out to canvas public opinion about how touch featured (or more often didn’t) in people’s day-to-day experiences.

With almost 40,000 respondents internationally, the Touch Test is the largest of its kind to date.  The results, which were gathered up to the end of March, have now been released. What they show is that many people (54%) believe they have too little physical contact in their lives, a sense that has only intensified during lockdown according to subsequent smaller follow-up studies. The research also reconfirmed that interpersonal touch plays a vital role in wellbeing and reducing feelings of loneliness.

Many demographics – especially young adults and seniors – were already living through a loneliness epidemic prior to the term ‘lockdown’ entering our collective psyche. Indeed, since the 1960s, the proportion of one-person households has more than doubled in many European countries and in Australia, Canada, China, Japan, South Korea and the US. As reported by independent consulting demographer Joseph Chamie for Inter Press Service, such households ‘generally face more difficulties when dealing with . . . social isolation and loneliness’. According to a 2019 Pew Research Center analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics data, Americans aged 60 and over are alone for more than half of their waking hours. At the time of data collection, the demographic accounted for 22 per cent of the US population, a figure predicted to rise to 26 per cent by 2030.

This is a phenomenon that many have hoped haptic technology might play at least a partial role in resolving. Speaking during our Frame Lab event in 2019, Dr Gijs Huisman, head of R&D at House of Haptics, laid out his vision for a future in which wearable devices – and eventually interior environments and furniture – would allow users to communicate physically over distance.

‘If haptic technology allows us to touch something or someone that is actually far away, what does that do to our conception of space?,’ asked Huisman. More recently researchers at the University of New South Wales, led by UNSW Medical Robotics Lab director Dr Thanh Nho Do, published details of new haptic interface that they think could help those isolating during a pandemic feel more connected to loved ones, amongst other applications. ‘Unlike existing haptic devices, our technology is soft, lightweight, and thin and therefore, we hope users will be able to integrate it into what they're wearing to provide realistic haptic experiences in settings including rehabilitation, education, training and recreation,’ Nho Do told Science Daily.

Unfortunately public interest in these concepts remains low. Respondents to the Touch Test were agnostic about the potential for technology to play a role in reducing their haptic deficit. When asked whether they would consider using a device that simulated the touch of another person, such as allowing them to shake hands with someone, 46% responded that they definitely would not.

Whether the experiences of the past eight months will soften that resistance is up for question. As Devon Powers, associate professor of advertising at Temple University, and David Parisi, author of Archaeologies of Touch, wrote in a recent TechCrunch op-ed: ‘Now that COVID-19 has distanced us, the need for haptics to bridge that physical gap, however incompletely, becomes more obvious and demanding.’

After several decades of material innovation without much practical application, Powers and Parisi believe that ‘haptic designers must move from a narrow focus on solving the complex engineering problem touch presents to addressing the sorts of technologies users might comfortably incorporate into their daily communication habits.’ Doing so could transform how spatial designers think about the role high-contact surfaces play in sectors such as health care and hospitality, not to mention residential. Will such interfaces be a direct proxy for human contact? Unlikely, but if they can make isolation even moderately less debilitating, then they could still redefine what we mean by making a space ‘comfortable’.

Hero image: One of the key elements in BMW's Vision iNEXT is not tech, but textile – albeit through an integrated application that ingeniously conceals intelligent automated features that become visible only when necessary. With their proprietary Shy Tech, a series of gestures in the back area can activate controls usually located in the dashboard. Photo: Courtesy of BMW Group