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IN-TOUCH: Digital Touch and Communication

Periodic Reporting for period 4 - IN-TOUCH (IN-TOUCH: Digital Touch and Communication)

Reporting period: 2021-04-01 to 2022-05-31

Touch matters. It’s fundamental to how we experience and know ourselves, others and the world, and can be central to how we communicate, as well as many health and well-being benefits. Touch is an effective way of influencing attitudes, creating bonds between people, places or objects, and touching improves information flow and compliance. Touch is significant for developing and maintaining personal relationships, from greetings to communicating emotion or intimacy.

A new wave of digital communication technologies is beginning to stretch the touch possibilities of how we ‘feel’ the world around us – the who, what, how, and when of how we touch. There are new advances in touch technologies across a range of areas of everyday life, with touch technologies entering communication devices, wearable-garments and bracelets, virtual reality, bio-sensor applications, and robotics. These are used in face-to-face touch or touch at a distance to mediate touching between people, as well as people and objects or machines.

As the first comprehensive study of digital touch this project has shaped a new research agenda and made a significant contribution to closing the gap between technological development and social science understanding of digital touch. It has:

1. Developed innovative methods for researching digital touch communication in a fast-changing and complex environment
2. Described and explored the societal relevance, potential and consequences of digital touch for communication (e.g. for privacy, safety, connection)
3. Offered new research insights on how the public, designers and developers think about digital touch communication
4. Informed the design, use and governance of digitally mediated touch devices, systems and environments to help them be socially aware and responsible

The project has investigated how the public, news, designers and engineers think and talk about touch and digital touch; how digital touch features in learning, leisure and work; how when touching remotely via devices people can convey meaning and emotion; what virtual touch ‘feels’ like and is made sense of; how people interact and work with tactile robots in industrial work places; touch, technology and parenting; and people’s fears, hopes and desires for future digital touch. InTouch discusses the social implications of digital touch for our everyday lives.This has provided crucial new insight and understanding on the social character of touch as it is mediated by different digital technologies and investigated its impact and consequences for how people communicate and might, reshaping the future landscape of digital touch.

This work will help to ensure social science understanding and research methods keep in step with digital innovation and steer, harness and exploit the communicative potentials of digital touch in ways that are socially productive.
InTouch conducted a series of 12 innovative case to map the evolving space of digital touch, briefly outlined below:

• Imagining Remote Personal Touch: facilitated a series of exploratory workshops with computer scientists, designers and communication specialists to speculate on what it would be like to incorporate touch into personal remote communication.
• Interactive Skin and Touch: engaged in a series of research activities with a specialist lab developing interactive skin devices to explore its sensory and social properties and the potential relations between interactive skin and social touch.
• Virtual (VR) Touch: worked with VR users, industry and academic experts to reveal how they think about and describe the key dimensions of VR touch experiences.
• In Touch with Baby: worked with parents and the designers of a biosensing monitor to explore bio-sensing as a form of digital touch and how it reshapes parent-infant touch.
• Robotic Touch: studied robotic technologies of touch in the context of industrial work (e.g. glass factory, waste management centre) and the futures of industrial robots.
• Tactile Emoticon: developed a digital touch device to investigate how people can and might in the future use vibration, pressure and temperature to communicate.
• Designing Digital Touch: collaborated with design educators to support the challenges of designing digital touch and made an online Designing Digital Touch Toolkit.
• The Manifesto for Touch in Crisis: offers a provocative research vision designed to spark debate, inspire and direct the design of social touch.
• Newspaper discourses of ‘touch’ during COVID-19: examines British newspaper stories of touch and communication across the five years leading up to the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdowns.
• Remote contact: developed a series of interactive exhibits to create a public exhibition to explore feelings of connection and tackle isolation.
• Thresholds of Touch: explored touch ritual, self-touch, touching others and objects through a performance and investigated how social and artistic researchers can collaborate.
• Unlocking Touch: explored how physical touch can be incorporated into digital sound experiences to evoke touch experiences and made an online play on the touch, loneliness and lockdown in Covid-19 times.

We have shown how the use of these touch technologies change touch practices, and, at a fundamental level, what we ‘count’ as touch and will ultimately give rise to new social forms of touch and other sensorial communication and ways of being in the world.
Through these InTouch project 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 theorised the ways in which touch is digitally mediated, how it is supplemented, extended, heightened or enhanced, and in some contexts reconfigured. We have offered an extended view of touch beyond ‘direct’ skin-to-skin human stimulation, to include internal touch, direct touch, proximal touch and environmental touch. 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.
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