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Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL

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NeoTouch. The future of haptic communication – Work in Progress Show

NeoTouch is a speculative design project that envisions the future of haptic technology in the form of a haptic communication device that allows people to touch each other at a distance. The design of this device then creates a stage for a wider narrative that speculates on the social and ethical implications of such a technology.

As Dunne and Raby state in their book Speculative Everything (2013):
“While we are more than ever aware of both the promise and the threat of technological advance, we still lack the intellectual means and the political tools for managing progress.”

The point of the project – and speculative design in general – is to create a debate around social and ethical issues and the influence technology has on human interactions. By extrapolating current trends and projecting them into the future we can ask: What are the ethics of future technology?

This can help us question what is given in order to evaluate what kind of future we want to create. Within the field of haptics this triggers questions such as: What is digital intimacy? Who can touch me? How could haptic technology affect our perception and conception of privacy and consent?

Different aspects and applications of haptic technology are being developed in various fields from gaming and VR to the car industry and even the sex industry. The communication technology is trying to use haptics not just to help us interact in a more natural way with our data, but also to communicate directly with each other on a more emotive level.

It is this potential of haptics for emotive human-to-human interaction that I focus on in this project. The more we embed technology into every aspect of our lives – and our communication in general – the more our digital and physical selves overlap and merge. This includes any digital or physical issues such as questions of consent. We are still struggling with assuring agency over our own bodies while on a digital level we have yet to figuring out how to healthily and safely use digital communication and social media and keep or digital data secure. These issues become even more concerning if we imagine a digital experience being mapped onto the physical body.

The design for NeoTouch consists of a chip implant that interfaces with the brain to stimulate the somatosensory cortex – a kind of map of our entire body – (Gallace and Spence, 2010) to create a sense of touch anywhere on the skin. Human touch as nonverbal communication however, is much more than just a physical sensation on the skin. It has an emotional layer to it that varies with every person and situation. Therefore the NeoTouch chip is linked to a set of nano-tech skin patches that stimulate different parts of the body as emotional trigger points to create a more holistic, emotive experience that equates to the experience of real life human touch. (Nummenmaa et al, 2014)

Along with the design of the device, I then use film as a storytelling medium to explore the social and ethical implications I associate with this technology. In term three, I created a future documentary in which I interviewed different people about their experience with NeoTouch technology. The points of view presented by the different characters enabled me to trigger people’s imagination of the design and functionality of the device while simultaneously exploring different aspects relevant to the critical debate around such technological development.

References:

Dunne, A. and Rabie, F. 2013. Speculative Everything. The MIT Press.

Gallace, A. and Spence, C., 2010. Touch and the body: The role of the somatosensory cortex in tactile awareness. Psyche: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Research on Consciousness.

Nummenmaa, L., Glerean, E., Hari, R. and Hietanen, J.K., 2014. Bodily maps of emotions. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111(2), pp.646-651.

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