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Haptics and Emotions | Can feelings be stimulated by touch?

Can feelings be stimulated through mid-air touch? And more importantly, can technology convey these feelings from one person to another over distance? As if out of a science-fiction novel, answers to these questions around haptics and emotions were recently provided by Dr Obrist’s group at the University of Sussex, in collaboration with Bristol University and Ultrahaptics.

Emotions mediated through mid-air haptics

At the epicentre of this study was Ultrahaptics technology which enables creating mid-air sensations of touch to stimulate different parts of the hand. These stimuli were mapped by a group of participants to a set of emotions and were later recognised by two independent groups of users.

The first group created 20 touch patterns using the Ultrahaptics device in response to five images, which came from an established emotion database called the International Affective Picture System database. A second group of people refined the haptic patterns and then a third group experienced these and matched them to the images, with no knowledge of how the sensations were created. The ratings from the last group were strongly correlated to the images from the first group, suggesting that the first group had successfully communicated with the third.

Emotions Mediated Through Mid-Air Haptics

The findings of this study point to the huge potential for mediating emotions through mid-air haptics. Crucially, this is one of the first studies to clearly demonstrate a mapping between emotions and haptics. For example, the study found that specific ultrasonic sensations are linked to specific classes of emotions. A short vertical movement starting at the thumb and moving towards the middle of the palm or wrist was linked to excitement and positive emotions. Conversely, slowly directing touch away from the palm and towards the fingers was associated with negative emotions. Following the study, Obrist was awarded the prestigious ERC Starting Grant worth £1.3 million, to pursue a five-year project expanding her research into taste, smell and touch.

Communication, feelings, and haptics

A technology that can mediate emotions in this way has a variety of application opportunities, Obrist said, including opening up new ways of communication for deaf and blind people.

“A similar technology could be used between parent and baby, or to enrich audio-visual communication in long-distance relationships.”

“It could [be applied] either for one-to-one interactions, such as a discrete tactile system between a couple or friends using, for instance, wearable technology, or it could be used for one-to-many interactions, where we can create tactile sensations for many such as in a cinema to create more immersive viewing experiences,” she said.

“All that we now know is that there is a non-arbitrary emotional mapping for mid-air haptic stimulation but we still need to further validate this mapping” Subramanian, co-author, said.

Further reading

Obrist, Marianna, et al. “Emotions mediated through mid-air haptics.” Proceedings of the 33rd Annual ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. ACM, 2015.

 

 

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