Explorations in Tactile Experiences

Attempts to reach out and touch the sky

I love unique, multisensory experiences that transport you to another place or give you the opportunity to see things from a different perspective. These can take the form of museum exhibits, live action role play, themed parties, magical or artistic spaces, etc.

This interest is the product of one of my main artistic motivations: evocation. I want to give people wonder, joy, and curiosity, and if they just suspend their disbelief a bit, they can emerge somewhere else, feeling something else. I started my career in video games for this reason, and try to create evocative experiences when I can:

Technology is obviously a fantastic mediator, faciliator, and amplifier of alternate realities; VR in particular is amazing at this. The best thing out there is Birdly, which legitimately looks pretty amazing:

Unfortunately the technology and market is not there yet to move beyond images, sounds, and gestures, except in extreme cases like Birdly. The scents, tastes, tactility, and proprioceptive sensory experiences of reality remain rather elusive.

Seeking a Tactile Earth

A while back I set up a projector to point at the ceiling above my bed. I did this because I love nature and want to sleep under the stars every night, and I figured projected stars were a pretty good way to do that and would be a fun experiment.

After happening upon a video by Seán Doran of views from the International Space Station, I realized that instead this setup was quite good at creating the feeling of flying above the earth.

This experience projected over my entire ceiling felt like in the Ship of the Imagination from Carl Sagan's Cosmos. It was all-encompassing visually and proprioceptively when laying down with the earth taking up your entire field of view.

And then I realized what I really wanted was not just to fly over the earth, but to feel its atmosphere, oceans, mountains, forests, and deserts - the kind of thing you would do in a dream when you were unbound from relative scale, or like you used to do as a kid with the classroom globe.

Imagine running your fingers through these cotton-candy clouds

I stuck my hand out at the ceiling and imagined this. It was kind of silly and fun, but didn't quite do the trick.

Then I recalled my experiences at science museums with exhibits like the Exploratorium's Tactile Dome. These experiences were unique and memorable in part because, unlike our visual culture filled with movies and pictures, we rarely have false experiences with touch. This means we're not yet sensitized to artificial tactility, and thus the bar is low to create an evocative experience.

So I set about getting a few props.

Tactile Props

It turns out there are surprisingly few resources how to replicate different tactile senses. After all, nobody would reasonably seek this out in their daily life. So I had to come up with a few of my own. Here's what I picked up:

I also used a fan to create the sense of wind blowing, some regular sand and rocks to replicate drier areas, and of course water for the oceans. I put most of these in a kind of diorama box:

The Result

The result was fun and additive to the overall experience. It does take concentration sometimes to connect what you're seeing with what you're feeling, and ergonomically using your hands to feel things while lying down is a bit uncomfortable. I fixed this somewhat by setting up some pillows to lay atop in a sort of 'command chair' configuration, and made a second box to enable a stereotactile experience. It looks goofy but works a lot better:

Stacked pillows lift the body up and plush logs support the forearms when engaged in stereotactile mode

The mist and water in particular were hard to set up ergonomically (that figures), but the kinetic sand had enough liquid-ness to work instead. Some other things I might try next are:

  • Heat lamps to replicate the hot deserts of the sahara
  • Ice or TEC/Peltier elements to create cool to the touch surfaces that replicate the ice caps
  • A relief map to replicate the feeling of mountaintops
  • Lego to mimic the feel of cities
  • Non-newtonian fluids for swamps and lakebeds

I'd love to get the mister blowing mist from the headboard so you feel like you're in the clouds. And what would be even more amazing is to be able to orchestrate all of these to happen at the appropriate time in the video. Turn on the heat lamp and turn off the mister in the desert, reverse those over the ocean and add a fan, etc. This would obviously be pretty complex, but completely unique.

What's Next in Tactile Experiences

One thing that I'm excited about in the next 5-10 years is that I think VR is going to bring about a hugely increased focus on replicating tactile senses. VR hardware is just a few years away from a breakout success, with things like the Oculus Quest offering a tantalizing view into this coming future. Once VR hardware reaches this threshold, attention will shift to the tactile as people seek out higher and higher fidelity virtual experiences.

One place in particular that's researching tactile computing is the Tangible Media Group at MIT Media Lab. I've been following their work for some time (almost went to grad school there), and they occasionally create some really interesting prototypes that are portents of things to come:

Stick a Starry Night Sky on Your Ceiling - Times article on how to bring nature into your room.