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Haptics | 6 reasons touch is important

Dr. Hannah Limerick, User Experience Researcher at Ultrahaptics, gives six reasons why we should all pay more attention to our sense of touch.

1. Touch gives us a sense of presence

Tactile sensations, vision and proprioception (the sense of the position of our bodies in space) all combine to create our sense of body ownership or presence. When this is disrupted we become disorientated, losing our sense of what is our body and what isn’t.

We also use touch to assure us of the reality of objects. “Humans are confident in the reality of of the world more through touch than through any other sense,” haptics expert Professor Vincent Hayward explained to Ultrahaptics recently.

In the ‘rubber hand’ illusion, a disconnect between touch and sight makes participants experience the illusion that a rubber hand belongs to them.   

2. Sensory experience helps us explore the world

The complex interplay of sensations such as hot, cold, hard, soft, pain, itching and so on is central to understanding and interacting with the world. Tactile sensations warn us, allow us to discriminate between objects and (unlike vision) provide a 360° field of perception.

Hand holding a giant ice cube

Tactile sensations such as hot and cold help us to navigate the world.

3. Haptic feedback makes action possible

When I reach for a cup of coffee on my desk, it’s sight that directs my hand towards the cup. But it’s haptic feedback (a mix of tactile sensations and proprioception) that allows me to grip the cup and pick it up. I do all of this without having to think about it – it’s completely intuitive.

It’s extremely rare to lose your sense of touch, but the few people who have (such as Ian Waterman, whose amazing story you can read here) describe it as being effectively paralysed. It takes months or years for them to learn how to manipulate objects using solely their sense of sight.

Man holding a mug of black coffee

Without haptic feedback, it’s impossible to do even the simplest actions. 

4. Touch is essential to emotional connection and wellbeing

Humans are social animals, and research shows touch builds emotional connection and is fundamental to social communication. Touch is essential to early childhood development and several studies (including one featuring Ultrahaptics’ technology) have shown that people can communicate emotions solely through touch.

Child and parent holding hands in sun dappled woods

Touch is fundamental to connection and social communication.

5. Your sense of touch is astonishingly acute

Touch receptors in your fingertips are capable of detecting a skin displacement of just 0.00001mm. Or, to put it another way, you can detect an object the size of a molecule (albeit a very large one).

Hand Brushing grass

6. Haptic technology is the next big thing 

Haptic technology integrates touch into computer interfaces and virtual worlds.

We’re used to simple haptic devices such as the vibrate function on a mobile phone. Today, though, there are far more sophisticated systems – including the ultrasound device we’ve developed here at Ultrahaptics, which precisely focusses ultrasound waves to create tacticle sensations in mid-air.

Ultrahaptics haptics technology development kit

Ultrahaptics’ technology uses ultrasonic speakers to create tactile sensations in mid-air.

I think what’s going on in VR and AR at the moment is fascinating. However, until we incorporate the sense of touch, we’re going to struggle to create user experiences that truly deliver immersion, a sense of agency and meaningful social connections.

In VR and AR, touch is the missing piece of the puzzle.

Dr. Hannah Limerick is a User Experience Researcher at Ultrahaptics. Her PhD combined human-computer interaction and cognitive neuroscience techniques to investigate how people’s sense of agency was altered whilst interacting with computer interfaces

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