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IN-TOUCH: Digital Touch and Communication

Periodic Reporting for period 3 - IN-TOUCH (IN-TOUCH: Digital Touch and Communication)

Reporting period: 2019-10-01 to 2021-03-31

Touch matters. It’s fundamental to how we experience and know ourselves, others and the world, and can be central to how we communicate. A new wave of sensory communication technologies is beginning to stretch the possibilities of how we ‘feel’ the world around us and how, what, whom and when we touch. This emerging technological landscape is important for society as ‘digital touch’ has the potential to adapt and create new ways of understanding and engaging with each other, and of connecting or disconnecting us. This raises questions for the place of touch in communication, including: What would it be like if we could hug or touch across distance? How might it shape our sense of connection? What bonds might be formed or lost? How could we establish trust, or protect our privacy and safety?
There is, however, an immense gap between technological development and social science understanding of digital touch. The IN-TOUCH project aims to close that gap, by exploring the social implications of digital touch technologies for communication. We are working to:

1. Anticipate and confront the social, political and ethical challenges raised by digital touch (such as, privacy, safety, and digital exclusion)
2. Enhance our capacity to fully imagine and engage with the societal relevance and potential of digital touch for communication
3. Enable the development of digital touch devices, systems and environments to take adequate account and care of people’s communicative practices and social contexts
4. Inform the design, use and governance of digitally mediated touch

Through a series of innovative case studies focused on a wide range of touch-technologies we are mapping this complex landscape and advancing theory and method in the social study of emerging touch technologies.
Substantial progress has been made over the first half of this project, addressing the project objectives and the research questions to explore and better understand how the digital is reshaping touch and touch communication. Through a series of case studies,we have focused our attention on touch as it is digitally mediated through haptic devices, wearables, bio-sensing, robotics, virtual reality and other digital touch devices, systems and environments that go beyond the everyday touch screen. These have explored touch technologies in the areas of personal relationships, health and well-being, learning, and leisure. To date we have seven case studies:

1. Imagining Remote Personal Touch examined the possible role of touch in the context of remote personal relationships and outlined the features of an emerging Sociotechnical Imaginaries of digital touch for remote personal communication.

2. In Touch with Baby used a new bio-sensing sock (worn by infants) to explore digital touch in the context of parent-infant interaction and examined how this ‘fitted into’ and impacted on parents’ touch practices with their baby.

3. The Art of Remote Contact, a collaboration with artists on an exhibition, explored how digital interactive arts offered the public new routes to explore touch and digital touch communication.

4. Designing Digital Touch, a collaboration with design scholars at the Loughborough Design School, supported design students to bring digital touch communication to the centre of their design process. Leading to the development of a Designing Digital Touch Toolkit.

5. Tactile Emoticon, in collaboration with neuroscience and computer science scholars, focused on a new device we built to support remote ‘touch’ in order to investigate how the practice of sending emoticons might be extended to touch to enhance social communication.

6. Virtual Touch, investigates how people conceptualize and experience ‘touch’ in virtual reality, where the feel of touch is changed in new ways, including interviews with leading figures in academia and industry in the field of VR.

7. Threshold Touch Experiences is an artistic collaboration with a composer and performance artist that explores the sociality of digital touch communication through the medium of performance.

Through detailed, situated case studies in labs, galleries, and the home IN-TOUCH has address a wide range of social questions. This has enabled us to start to map the complex landscape of digital touch communication and investigating the social and sensory dimensions of digitally mediated touch.
Through these case studies we have investigated digital touch interactions between people, and between people ‘machines’, and explored both face-to-face touch and remote touch at a distance. Across the project case studies, we are treading new methodological ground. The project team is interdisciplinary, enabling a rich and complex perspective on our case studies. We have established significant inter-disciplinary collaborations, with colleagues in Social Sciences, Art, Performance, Design, Neuroscience, Computer Science, Human Computer Interaction, and we are working with colleagues in Industry and the Museum sector. These collaborations have enabled us to successfully bring together theories and methods from different disciplines and traditions in order to develop new ways of, and tools for, conceptualizing and studying digital touch technologies. We use these methods to attend to digital touch as it is being developed, incorporated and imagined in labs, design and artistic practice, and in everyday life.
Through the case studies and a portfolio of publications, and artistic outputs, we have begun to theorise the ways in which touch is digitally mediated, how it is supplemented, extended, heightened or enhanced, and in some contexts reconfigured. We have explored the consequences of this in relation to social norms of touch, notions of presence, absence, and connection, the sociotechnical imaginaries of digital touch, touch regulation and the ethics of touch. The case studies and collaborations will continue to evolve over the project, with a further case study on robotic touch for health, well-being and work is planned. As we continue to develop and analyse them, we will look across them to establish additional themes and features of digital touch with attention to their social and sensory meanings for our future communicative landscape.
Remote Contact Exhibition_1
Remote Contact Exhibition_2
Tactile Emotion_Designing Vibration Stroke
Tactile Emoticon_Controlling Touch
Remote Contact Exhibition_3
IN-TOUCH with Baby_Focus Group Materials
Tactile Emotion_Sharing Touch
Rapid Prototyping Imagining Remote Touch Workshop_1
Designing Digital Touch Toolkit
Kissenger Device with Image
Thresholds of Touch_Constraining
Rapid Prototyping Imagining Remote Touch Workshop_2
Thresholds of Touch_Knitting e-Wire Touch
IN-TOUCH with Baby_Owlet Device