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Your skin – the interface of the 21st century?

The tactile deprivation that is part and parcel of the convenience of all the electronic options we have at our disposal has literally made us… tactless! Because we put convenience first, we lose out on interpersonal touch and face-to-face human interaction. It is not very surprising, then, that we see an ever increasing popularity and prevalence of added interaction possibilities through various touch technology developments. In this article we look at new technologies that allow us to receive tactical feedback from the devices we use on a daily basis, and we look at technologies which can actually transform our skin into an interface, allowing us to control devices by touching… ourselves!

As convenient as modern technology may be, we still want that personal touch

What good is comforting your heart-broken friend on Whatsapp if you can’t put your arms around her? What’s the point of flirting online without being able to sneak a kiss? The critical form of social glue we call touch is increasingly lacking from our day to day existence. And we’re not necessarily just talking long, comforting hugs. Even quick, incidental social touch is important to our emotional wellbeing. Touching is a way to connect people, whether in social settings or in the workplace. Patients who are touched by their medical professionals have better medical outcomes and reduced levels of stress hormones. Even shop owners have been proven to sell more when they lightly and briefly touch their customers’ arm.

We also want to be touchy-feely with products

Not only do we want to experience the touch that comes with human interaction, we also want objects to respond to our touch. Research has shown that the ‘feel’ of objects actually influences our buying behaviour and we prefer to purchase products that we can touch, as opposed to just seeing them. For instance, for 35% of customers, the feel of a mobile phone was more important than its appearance. Now, imagine phones or other mobile devices with tactile touch screens. Not only will they be cool to look at, they will be even cooler to touch and easier to use. Touch-based features will result in less input errors and overall, a much more satisfying user experience.

Getting some touchy love in return – introducing TeslaTouch

The digital age has gotten us accustomed to loving to touch screens. Our fingers swipe and tap away on many different types of screens throughout the day; our phones, tablets and wearables. Up until now, however, we have gotten no love in return. Most glass screens basically feel identical and they don’t ‘reciprocate’ when it comes to sensory experiences. The only feedback we get from touching screens is through screen vibration, facilitated by mechanical actuators.

Video credits: Daniil Rassadin

A Disney Research team at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh has developed a revolutionary new touch screen technology called TeslaTouch, named after Nicola Tesla, the polymath from Serbia who revolutionised the field of electromagnetism. The technology provides tactile feedback using electrical charges as opposed to a mechanical device, allowing your fingers to literally feel what can be seen on your screen. With this technology, you can actually feel how large a file is when you move it across your screen with your finger. Called ‘the future of feel’, TeslaTouch can provide sensations such as friction, vibration and even textures.

Senior research scientists did experiments to determine how users perceived the tactile sensation when using the technology and the results were incredible. People who clicked on a file or dragged it to a different location such as a folder, felt the size or weight of it and could even feel when it had reached the destination. Larger files also felt heavier than smaller files. Artists who made drawings on their devices could even feel paper and paint. The TeslaTouch technology can be implemented in any and all applications that have touch screen components. According to the research team, TeslaTouch may be commercialised in the future, but at this point it is too early to confirm these plans.

Skinput – why touch a screen when you can touch… yourself?

Researchers at Microsoft have done some touchy-feely research of their own. They have developed Skinput, sensing technology based on bio-acoustics, which enables the human body to function as a large surface for finger-input with no electronics touching the skin at all – or basically, technology that can turn your forearm into a control panel for your phone. From touch screen interface to touch skin interface, what makes this possible?

A finger tapping on the skin creates various acoustic signals, travelling over and through the skin’s surface. The area of your skin determines the sound your tapping makes, which is influenced by the different flesh and bone densities in the various parts of your arm. In order to capture and harness these acoustic signals, a special bio-acoustic sensing armband was designed. Skinput technology uses a microphone and a pica-projector which can be built into mobile phones or wearables such as an armband. The projector projects the buttons onto your skin, and the specially designed ‘listening-software’ with sensors can then hear various types of skin surface impact sounds when you tap the projected buttons on your skin. The sound is then captured, analysed and categorised to pinpoint where you tapped.

Video credits: Chris Harrison

Then, the signals are sent via Bluetooth to control any number of nearby devices. You can make phone calls, activate audio devices and play games. The beauty of functionalities like these is that we can operate our bodies without having to use our eyes. We can, for instance, tap our nose, snap our fingers or pull our ears. This ability is fantastic for operating devices when you are on the move. You can, for instance, change the tracks on your mp3 player while you’re jogging through the park. You can even use your hand as a calculator – meaning you can actually, really count with your fingers.

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