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Sense of Agency | The sense of control and mid-air haptics

The “Sense of Agency” refers to the subjective awareness that one is initiating, executing, and controlling one’s own actions in the world. For example, how do you know that you are in control when driving a car? For one, the car direction changes as you steer. Similarly, you can hear the engine revving when you press the gas pedal. The car reacts to the user input making it obvious who is in control.

This Sense of Agency is not so obvious sometimes, especially when interacting with digital content. One reason for this is the lack of a mechanical input/output medium; a growing problem since digital content is becoming ever more ubiquitous.

Sense of Agency in mid-air interfaces

Researchers at Sussex University studied the Sense of Agency in mid-air interfaces, for example by using hand gestures to manipulate digital content (think Virtual Reality, holograms, or minority report). They found that significantly more Sense of Agency was achieved when touchless input action (e.g., gestures) were accompanied by an auditory or haptic outcome rather than a visual outcome. For example, it was shown that the sound of a “click” or a small “nudge” produced by an Ultrahaptics transducer array can improve the Sense of Agency and restore ownership of your actions.

Sense of Agency - mid-air haptics demo by Ultrahaptics

“A system that evokes a low Sense of Agency will discourage users from using it. This highlights the importance of feedback in touchless systems. Ultrahaptics addresses this problem directly and we’re very excited to see that Universities are confirming and investigating ways of improving the way we interact with digital content more efficiently.”

– Orestis Georgiou, Academic Program Manager of Ultrahaptics.

Taking ownership of our actions with tactile feedback

“Today touchless systems are being used in many critical situations, for example, surgery and driving, where feeling control of one’s own actions is very relevant. In our research we explored types of interaction that significantly impact on users’ Sense of Agency, aiming to provide solutions that improve the feeling of controlling a touchless interface” – Patricia Ivette Cornelio Martinez.

Further reading

Cornelio Martinez, Patricia Ivette, et al. “Agency in mid-air interfaces.” In: ACM CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI 2017), May 6-11, 2017.

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