Immanuel Kant once said that the hand was the visible part of the brain – but today, our hands aren’t just hands, they’re device holders too. An increasing dependence on digital technology is rapidly changing how we need to look at the world and our place in it. But how will this affect our senses? Touch expert Dr. Gijs Huisman has some ideas up his sleeve.

During Frame Lab next month [buy your tickets here], the senior researcher for the Digital Society School of Amsterdam-slash-head of R&D at House of Haptics will explore the state of innovation in haptic technology and what that could mean for spatial design. Recently released, House of Haptics’ first product called the HEY Bracelet enables users to share touch signals remotely in seconds through a sleek accessory and app – yeah, long distance relationships just got that much easier. But for them, that’s just the start.

As our senses evolve to accommodate to the ever-shifting physical-digital divide – and convergence – Huisman’s insight at Frame Lab 2019 will help uncover new parameters within our own spatial realities.

What new developments in haptic technology excite you for the future of the field? What could those mean for spatial design?

DR. GIJS HUISMAN: Starting this year, there will be a really exciting project on smart textiles that I co-wrote – the textiles that will be developed actuate [set in motion] themselves. Large structures can be created by using traditional methods of processing fabrics, such as weaving or knitting. For example, this textile could enable you to dynamically change the size of a knitted sweater. The potential of this technology for providing haptic feedback is incredible, because the haptic actuator does not have to be embedded in a wearable, rather, the wearable is the actuator.

I can imagine applications of this kind of technology in furniture design, where the fibres would be used to change the shape of a sofa – and perhaps for furniture that can touch us back. Of course, we would have to think carefully about the implications of these new types of interactions within our spaces and how we relate to each other in them. 

If haptic technology allows us to touch something or someone that is actually far away, what does that do to our conception of space?

Could you see yourself working on a project within the realm of architecture or interiors one day?

On a personal level, I have always been very interested in architecture and interior design. There is both a science and a craft to it that really speaks to me – the attention to materials, design, and increasingly, sustainability. The joy of a well-designed building or furniture is something that can last for decades – I find this to be in stark contrast to modern-day technology. I have a set of Artifort chairs in my home that used to belong to my grandparents; the chairs are older than I am! Since I have owned the chairs I have had maybe half a dozen mobile phones. Why is that? Of course there is the rapid rate of innovation in digital technology like better screens and batteries, but I would love to work on creating digital technology that lasts longer, and is designed with the same care and attention as a well-designed piece of furniture. 

Why is touch so crucial in processing our environments, especially as they become more digital?

It’s important to understand that what we call 'touch' is not one unitary sense but a variety of sensory inputs. Our brains do not have direct access to objective reality, to the world outside our bodies. Instead, they rely on the senses like proprioception [awareness of one’s own physical positioning] – most relevant to how we traverse through spaces – to get information. So the way that we construct the world outside the body happens through using our physicality to undertake actions in the world; to move around in it, and to touch things.

The question in creating compelling physical-digital environments is how we can use haptic feedback to also address the sense of touch

The way that we interact with the new digital elements in our environments occurs through the same mechanisms. There is an issue, here, though – while we can see digital elements, touching them is often not possible. If you have ever seen someone trying out an augmented or virtual reality headset for the first time, this becomes very apparent. They see, say, a virtual chair, in front of them and they want to reach out and touch it as they would do with an actual chair. When they notice their hand moves through the chair, the illusion is broken and it becomes clear that the digital object is indeed just that. The question in creating compelling physical-digital environments is how we can use haptic feedback to also address the sense of touch.

The HEY bracelet sends touch over distance – completely revolutionary for a different kind of connectivity. It’s nice to see love influencing technology when it’s so often criticized for weakening social relationships. What was the inspiration behind the product?

HEY Bracelet was actually inspired by one of our co-founders Mark van Rossem. At the time Mark's son was about 6 years old they started this little ritual; whenever one of them saw something interesting, they would squeeze the other's hand two times. For them, this was a simple but intimate way of communicating. Mark travelled for work frequently and really missed this way of communicating when he was away from his family. The idea with HEY Bracelet was to try to recreate at least a small part of this important ritual.

With rapid-fire changes in digital technology, what questions do you have for the future of design?

For me personally, it is actually through working on digital technology that I become more aware of how important touch is to how I move around in actual spaces, and interact with actual objects. There are aspects of the field that are incredibly fascinating: If haptic technology like the HEY bracelet allows us to touch something or someone that is actually far away, what does that do to our conception of space? Will spaces just be physical locations or do they have digital extensions that reach beyond their walls? I would be very interested to collaborate with those working in architecture to get to an answer to these questions.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Dr. Gijs Huisman will speak at Frame Lab 2019 for the Intuitive Tech content track, along with Anny Wang, Hirotaka Tako, Anita Fontaine and Geoffrey Lillemon. Buy your tickets today.