Virtual Touch

Conference Paper, appeared in Proceedings of the 19th International Symposium of Electronic Art, ISEA2013, Sydney. Publisher: ISEA International, Australian Network for Art & Technology, University of Sydney.
By Stahl Stenslie. Summary of the text. To read the full text follow this link.


The paper presents a general overview of how to apply haptics and tactile touch as an artistic material in the context of media art. It presents how touch can be used to form meaningful experiences on its own, and inside virtual and mixed realities using emergent, mobile technologies such as the smartphone.

‘In the electric age we wear all mankind as our skin.’
– Marshall McLuhan

The use of touch in the contexts of art and electronic media is an underexplored area [1] [2]. McLuhan’s statement above [3] on how we can sense mankind through our electronic skin is fascinat- ing, but true only in an audiovisual sense. In current collaborative virtual environments we can see and hear each other anywhere and anytime across the planet, but we cannot reach out and touch for real. Still there is no corporeal bonding connecting the multitude of
electronic galaxies and networks. We therefore experience what can be de- scribed as a somatic neglect [4]. It could be different. This paper presents open, artistic explorations of how it feels to touch and be touched in virtual realities. The paper title Virtual Touch is an oxy- moron just like Virtual Realities, for if we understand virtual as ‘almost’, how can one almost be touched? Touch is experienced less as an objective feeling and more as an embodied phenomenon situated in the living, active and sensing body [4]. This is demonstrated in con- texts of sensory deprivation: users of flotation chambers report that experienc- es similar to hallucinations occur when the body lacks sensory input. Without a constant flux of sensory information it starts to produce its own, imaginary ones [5]. This demonstrates how touch can be considered as an active sense which is, from a phenomenological point of view, always actively directed at something [6]. Our experiences of electronic media have changed since the introduction of the Smartphone/iPhone in 2007. The Smartphone gives us new ways to create an ‘art of the recently possible’. This impacts upon us in ways that we could not have foreseen even a few years ago. This paper, therefore, presents the World Ripple project, which combines geoloca- tive media with touch-based interaction through the use of wearable bodysuits.

[1] Constance Classen. The Book of Touch (Berg, 2005)
[2] Paterson, The Senses of Touch: Haptics, Affects and Technologies (Oxford, UK: Berg, 2007)
[3] Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: the extensions of man (edition 1, McGraw-Hill, 1964 / edition 4, Taylor & Francis, 1987), p. 47
[4] Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: the extensions of man (edition 1, McGraw-Hill, 1964 / edition 4, Taylor & Francis, 1987), p. 47
[5] Dennis Coon and John O. Mitterer, Introduction to Psychology: Gateways to Mind and Behavior (Cengage Learning, 2008)
[6] P. Dourish, Where the action is: The Foundations of Embodied Interaction (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001)


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