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Experiencing touch, in spite of distance

Touch is a very intimate sense that implies great closeness between two people. Can this experience be shared among a group of people distributed in a space?

Christopher Salter, a professor of design and digital arts in the Department of Fine Arts at Concordia University, has been conducting research-creation on this burning issue at a time when the COVID-19 pandemic imposes physical distancing.

Each person's tactile sensations are produced through wireless sensing and transmission technologies.

The project lies at the junction of new technologies, the arts, and the human and social sciences, including anthropology. The aim was to develop a haptic system allowing participants to experience touch while maintaining a physical distance, and then to create an artistic performance using the tools developed. The interactions of the participants could then be analyzed from an anthropological perspective.

The researcher and his team created “Haptic Field”, a game-like participatory installation in which visitors whose vision is obscured move around, dressed in garments capable of generating tactile sensations of varying intensity on the body. The strength of these sensations can, for example, increase sharply when two participants move closer to each other. Each person's tactile sensations are produced through wireless sensing and transmission technologies. This creates the impression of an ever-changing tactile "field".

This artistic performance has been presented in various countries including China, Austria and Indonesia. The results show that the experience of the tactile sensations is strongly linked to the culture of the participant. In Indonesia, for example, belief in spirits such as memedis or lelembuts remains widespread. Many of the participants in this country therefore felt that they were surrounded by spirits or ghosts.

In addition to generating knowledge and technological advances, this project offers insights for rethinking communication through touch, in a context where physical closeness is being called into question.