Creating Haptic Vocabulary

Exploring the personal dynamics of intimacy with strangers through digitally mediated haptics

Popular digital media are associated with a change in normative expressions of intimacy. For example, social media scholarship has examined the way in which people disclose personal details and build intimate relationships in relatively public online spaces, thus challenging the idea that intimacy is conjugated  with privacy and domesticity. One way to conceive of this is the circulation of intimate expressions among close and distant relationships. Social media is a predominantly visual medium. This research seeks to test whether a similar change in norms can be expected with other senses as they become integrated into popular communication, particularly the sense of touch.

The work revolves around groups of people using a newly developed haptic armband that can communicate a vocabulary of touch messages – tap, stroke, rub, caress – sent from a companion mobile phone app. Participants will be placed in groups of six people with differing degrees of familiarity. We will experiment with: a) differing degrees of tie strength; b) allowing participants to both know and not know who is sending them touch messages; c) different app settings that allow participants to choose who they can receive touches from; d) different social contexts in which the app and device are used.

Testing the first prototype. People improvising with each other musically communicated via the haptic armband

This project draws on research by Dr Alex Lambert (Faculty of Arts) as part of his work in Digital Media Futures. The technical aspects of the first prototype of the haptic armband have drawn on technology developed in SensiLab through the ‘Stress Pendant‘ project.

The work explores possible media futures of the expanded sensorium, and how cultural norms of intimate expression may evolve, or perhaps be redirected. In particular it challenges the received view of intimacy as desirable, and asks whether an alternative of enhanced cosmopolitanism in social media platforms may help us burst the filter bubble. The project is ongoing.

Project Members

Toby Gifford
Alex Lambert
Elliott Wilson
Dilpreet Singh
Jon McCormack