Haptic Technologies and the Geographies of Touch

Sarah Mills

Touch-screen mobile phones and other electronic devices are increasingly part of our everyday business and leisure engagements.  However, the BBC recently reported on the commercial race to launch ‘new’ haptic technologies, where “for the first time, people will be actually be able to have a virtual feel of some of the images that are placed before them.”  This article reports on research at the Disney Laboratories in the US where technologies are being developed to let people ‘feel’ objects on screen by stroking them with their fingers.  A senior researcher states: “We do this by applying a high voltage to a transparent electrode on the glass plate – in this case people will feel a texture on the glass. By varying the frequency and amplitude of the signal we can create different sensations.”  Other examples of this type of technology include developments in localised tactile feedback – aimed to enhance haptic phones where “people feel them, stretch them, bend them and have them react to these interactions”.

In a recent issue of Geography Compass, Deborah Dixon and Elizabeth Straughan chart “recent efforts to place touch, touching and being touched within non-essentialist, human geographic analyses”.  They highlight how “Considerable attention within geography has been paid to the physiologies, knowledges and practices that give substance and import to the senses – sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch – and the manner in which these work alone, or in concert, to facilitate particular forms of relations between and amongst people, other life forms and objects.”  Dixon and Straughan draw on examples of work that explores the “inter-play between the ‘interior’ psychologies of intimacy and indifference, acceptance and alienation (i.e. feelings of being in/losing/being out of touch) and the ‘exterior,’ corporeal work of texture and friction, push and feel.” In conclusion, they call for more critical attention to the work of touch.  The advent of haptic technologies reported in this BBC article demonstrates new ways in which various senses – in this case touch – frame our experiences and understandings of the world around us.

Read M. Fitzpatrick ‘Haptics brings a personal touch to technology’ on BBC Online

Read Deborah P. Dixon & Elizabeth Straughan (2010) ‘Geographies of Touch/Touched by Geography’ in Geography Compass 4 (5): 449-459

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