Technology and Touch: Beneath the Surface


by MJ Ali 

Our first sense—touch—develops in utero. It’s also our strongest sense at birth. We don’t give it a second thought, but touch is phenomenally complex. Touch is crucial to navigating our world, making sense of objects and intentions, alerting us to danger and calming us when we’re stressed. 

Not only do we react, respond, and adjust to feedback, we perceive through neural processing of social touch, fine versus crude touch, balance, and haptic perception. We also process touch very differently in different parts of our bodies, and there’s a science for that as well. This article on Vox breaks things down into manageable “touch facts”. If you’re feeling particularly geeky, you can read more about the somatosensory system on Wikipedia.

I’m going to start with something simple and work back from there, because if you have a phone with “haptic touch” (a non-button that feels like a button, for example), you understand the basic idea behind what our bodies are actually doing versus how our minds perceive what we’re doing. Haptic simply means anything relating to the sense of touch, but technology took the term under its vernacular wing and has been using it for any number of technologies feverishly under development in the past decade.

When you touch a piece of fabric, for example, and you’ve touched it before, your mind stores that information in its neural pathways and provides that information for you when you touch that fabric again. Technology is learning how to use that neural feedback to provide the same information remotely. Huh, you say? Huh, indeed!

Let’s say you’re shopping for a flannel blanket. You want a really soft flannel blanket. You go to a store that offers “haptic shopping” (we’re making this up as we go along because we can) and you see a blanket you like, but you want to know if it feels right. You place you finger on your smart phone and the website provides information that your neural pathways interpret as soft flannel. You then “feel” the texture of the blanket.

If this sounds too futuristic, think again. Take a look at some of these resources:

Tanvas’ haptic feedback system lets you feel texture on a touchscreen

“Feeling” Objects in Thin Air: The Future of Touch Technology

The Tesla Suit

Katherine Kuchenbecker’s TEDTalk regarding technology of touch

The implications of these technologies go far beyond convenience. Prosthetic hands with a sense of touch is just one of the many life-enhancing technologies that have been in various stages of development and realization for years.

Our minds have awe-inspiring abilities, including rewiring where our nerve endings are post-surgery. A Modular Prosthetic Limb allows patients to send signals to their prosthetic limb with their thoughts, and to receive signals as well.

In my next article, I’ll ponder how virtual touch might alter our social landscape.

Now, go hug someone.

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