A critique of haptic design within historical and philosophical frameworks – with a view to establish the potential of touch for digital interaction and communication

Simone Gumtau

Research output: Contribution to conferencePaperpeer-review


The sense of touch and the way bodily experiences and relations have been portrayed and viewed during the centuries provides a comprehensive framework in which to view a current re‐discovery of the haptic sense and especially the belated consideration within interface design. A revival of the senses in social sciences has produced a surge of theoretical accounts and scholarship around the sense of touch in recent years (Paterson (2007), Howes (2005), Getzinger (2005) and Classen (2005)). It should therefore be stated that the sensorium is to be seen as a social and historical construct, depending not only on cognitive and physiological processes, but firmly located in cultural, political and individual contexts. A kind of hierarchy of the senses has developed, resulting in the recently dominant ocularcentrism, or visual culture. In this paper, some of these contexts will be outlined, with a view of placing and understanding recently increased research activity around incorporating a greater spectrum of sensory interaction, specifically the haptic senses, within digital media design. Examining some of the historical and philosophical frameworks, an analysis of haptic designs and a grouping of research disciplines values, attitudes and beliefs is possible. The Enlightenment with its focus on scientific, observable data as the most valuable knowledge to strive for has shaped some prejudice towards the somatic senses. Looking at historical values driving scientific discoveries it could be observed that sensory, and especially haptic experiences are being more and more excluded in favour of the more ‘objective’ visual sense. However, for all this evidence of a neglected Haptic Sense, Getzinger (2005) observes signs that the haptic senses are enjoying a renewed interest and increasingly recognised value. Western science is moving from an empiricist, dualistic standpoint to accept theories of unity and interconnectedness like relativity theory and quantum mechanics. With the embracing of the idea that the mind and the body may not be separated, and one may perform better in a holistic manner, a general urge in Human Computer Interaction research for embodiment and added sensuality is emerging, particularly around attempts to investigate and create the possibility of communication and interaction. Moving away from a limited and reductionist interaction to an integrative and synthesizing, embodied one, the field of Haptic design research is one such pointer supporting this development. A growing number of people now have a pretty good "feeling" about investing in and developing Haptic technology. Including various modes and senses in the interaction process gives the impression that this will become more "natural" and "intuitive”. What exactly the benefits are for including touch in interface design is not always clearly stated and evaluated, but they include descriptions such as “richer”, “more intuitive”, “universal”, “no training”, “immediate”, “peripheral”, “more valid”. We will further explore, what the haptic senses specifically can add to situations of digital interaction and communication ‐ the sense of touch may vary in the quality and precision of information it delivers ‐ but the messages it does deliver are powerful.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 2011
EventECREA Digital Culture and Communication - Barcelona
Duration: 24 Nov 201125 Nov 2011


ConferenceECREA Digital Culture and Communication


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