To design deeply moving experiences is to weave dialogs between our bodily senses and the digital world behind the screen.
Screens are pervasive in our daily landscapes: retail spaces, restaurants, hotels, museums and even in our homes. For now, they appear the most obvious medium for bringing the digital world to life. But we also frequently hold screens responsible for breaking our connection with the ‘real’ world, or alienating people from one another. To create more meaningful relationships with digital representations, screens need to speak a more textured language. This means going beyond merely what our eyes can see.
To speak about tactility is to speak about emotions.
For a long time in the West, our sense of sight has enjoyed a privileged status: we have a point of view, we talk about our vision of the world and whatever we see, we believe. These everyday expressions reveal our implicit bias towards treating vision as the most reliable way to determine truth. Sight and hearing function at a distance. These senses allow us to quickly judge from afar: what things we like (or dislike) and what constitutes danger (or calm). Next, scent and taste mark the transition towards more proximate senses.
Finally, at the other end of this spectrum, we have the intimacy of the haptic. Touch is synonymous with proximity as it requires direct contact with surfaces. Tactility is strongly associated with our social and emotional natures, hence expressions like getting in touch, staying in touch and feeling touched by a kind gesture. Touch implies coming close to someone in order to connect, interact or communicate.
It is through touch that we build intimacy with objects, with plants, with people or with our homes; it is the sense that makes us most vulnerable physically and emotionally.
There is a need for proximity.
The presence of screens in every sphere of our lives is a sign of a certain kind of growing ‘intimacy’ with technology. In long-distance relationships, mediated by technology, we sometimes catch ourselves attempting to shorten the distance: placing our computer on the lap (justifying the designation laptop), or holding a mobile screen closer to our face, to our cheeks, to our ears, and even to our mouths while attempting to kiss the person on the other side.
Do these almost unconscious gestures reveal a need for nearness and tactility? Screens are becoming ubiquitous in our most personal moments, and we seem to resist interacting with them only as cold, distant and impenetrable windows.
A feel good trend
If light is the condition for vision, then texture is the condition for our tactility. We need to design screens that transmit more than just information.
In the distant past (in technology terms), we progressed from punched cards to teletype terminals to keyboards, mice and trackpads. These input devices had a tactile element, however crude. But when it comes to the output, our ability to perceive the digital has been largely limited to the flat display. With the rise of touchscreens, even the input side of this relationship has been increasingly restricted to the same two dimensional surface.
Over time we have added a few additional layers of feedback — such as sound effects and vibrating alerts — while the screen remains dominant. However, the rise of display-less and hearing-based devices or services such as Alexa, Siri and Google Assistant support the growing sense that meaningful interactions can happen through the interplay of our senses — and not only visually.
Along the same trajectory, we notice that our VR headsets, remote controls and other electronic devices that come in close contact with our bodies, hands and skin, are increasingly wrapped with fabrics or other natural materials that are more pleasing to the touch.
There is a shift from purely visual to multi-sensorial interaction with the digital. This trend recognises that touch is also a means for deeper communication. Our skin is the connector between the material world and our subjective sensations.
Could you imagine the feeling of spring through your screen?
We created a series of design experiments that question the nature of screens. By matching digital content with textures and movement, we wanted to raise the quality of our experience of the digital so that physical sensations play a bigger role.
By attaching fibre optics to an LED stem screen, as shown below, this surface flows like a field of flowers.
We want to break the distance between our touch and the virtual content on our screens, and allow its expression in more tactile ways.
In this Future of Spring experiment, the digital content escapes the squared displays of our TV and laptops, and invades the physical space.
Its 3-dimensionality invites us to interact with it, and straddles the boundary between what we see and what we can touch.
Imagine diving into an LED swimming pool at the Olympics?
In this experiment, we translated digital media into a swimming pool experience. Perceiving usually starts through our eyes; in this experiment, instead, light travels through the water and embraces our skin.
The word immersion strongly implies the experience of water. It is that feeling of our bodies being covered, absorbed and entirely surrounded by water, making us part of a whole. No wonder it is a popular term being used to describe the purpose of VR technologies, where users are said to be physically immersed in the simulated environment.
Water also comes to mind in this experiment because of the way terms such as navigation, surfing or streaming have been used to describe our activities on the web. As we explore the future of interactive spaces, could we find ways to express digital content that are more fluid, less starkly defined and symbolic? Could digital communication become more vivid and more tangible?
The future must be about designing for our senses
Today, our screens have been built considering only sight, and sight is synonymous with distance. To a large extent, this has defined our experience of the digital world and, unintentionally, how we relate to each other.
In the Interactive Space we advocate for nearness. We believe that designing for our senses breaks the distance between us and other worlds. This process ought to build our capacities for empathy and connecting with our environment.
The future of the digital is at the intersection with our material existence, drawing on multiple senses to restore our experience of being rooted in our bodies, emotions and our shared realities.
Written by Valentina Marino A.
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