These days, we’re more likely to use touchscreens – whether it’s our smartphones or digital shopping mall directories – to do things like send emails, chat with friends, or find our way around a mall. As everything around us is going digital, it’s making us long for a tactile world where we can physically feel things like paper money, pens, and photographs.
With the loss of their material form comes also the loss of the sensations and experiences that only physical interaction with objects can give us. So how important is it for us, as humans, to use our sense of touch? And how can we design for a digital world where we don’t lose out to these sensations?
The death of tactile
Touchscreens are arguably the death of tactile – we’re tapping and swiping on a cold, flat piece of glass. We’re substituting things from our surroundings with their digital forms. These days, we’re hunching like Quasimodo to access our notes and calendars with finger taps instead of scribbling with pens.
Thanks to the advancement and proliferation of smartphones and tablets, we’re sacrificing our sense of touch for convenience and portability. However, this convenience comes at a price. Today, things like CDs, calculators, and letters are becoming extinct, and the rich world of textures gone with them.
Why touch is important
We often take our sense of touch for granted. According to Finnish neurophysiologist Matti Bergström, we could become “fingerblind” if we don’t use our fingers during our childhood or youth. This is because the tips of our fingers have a rich network of nerves, and when we don’t use them enough, it can thwart our development as a whole.
Studies have shown that writing helps your brain process information and remember it much better – we’re talking handwriting, not tapping on keyboards. Our sense of touch helps the brain to create a stronger connection to performed tasks.
Since most of us are deprived of tactile experiences due to the fact that we use our smartphones, tablets, and laptops all the time, we will often seek them out.
This is why we go to shops like PaperMarket even though the art of handwriting and scrapbooking are pretty much killed by technology. We’re also reviving Polaroids and Lomography, and some folks are bringing back vinyls and cassettes tapes. While bookstores seem to be a thing of the past, we still prefer reading physical books and magazines. Simply feeling the paper they’re printed on and enjoying the colourful layout as you flip through the pages is a rare joy.
It seems as if all things retro are the rage, but the reason we gravitate towards them could be our human nature to want the tactile experience. We want to feel. How many of us love the feeling of putting our hands into a bag of beans, popping bubble wrap or petting the fur of our pets?
Designing digital for tactile
Perhaps the reason we crave digital aural experiences like ASMR is because these sounds make us feel something; we feel euphoric just by hearing the sound of objects being chewed, tapped or scratched. Since we don’t perform these actions ourselves – because we’re too used to our cold, flat screens – the mere sound of those actions can make us all tingly.
So how do we design for the digital while incorporating the tactile? We’re already seeing a number of innovations on this front.
One of the most common blends of technology and the tactile world comes in the form of IoT devices. The technology is supposed to add a level of digital intelligence to devices that would be otherwise dumb, but one can argue that it’s the tactility of these dumb devices that we crave.
Tactile IoT toys go way back to the 90s with Furby, which was a creepy, talking furry pet. It’s since evolved to include an app with a new world of Furblings so you can be haunted by both the physical and digital versions of these “pets”. These days, IoT toys have been designed as a learning experience for children: for example, the Osmo is an iPad app that translates tactile exploration – with physical puzzles, sketches, and game pieces – into a digital learning process. It’s been adopted by some schools as a way for kids to collaborate, create, think critically, and communicate.
When was the last time you wrote a letter or lecture notes? We know how to write the old-fashioned way, but we often need them digitised in order to share or store them. A number of smart devices can digitise your scribbles into electronic form – Moleskine and Livescribe, for instance, use Bluetooth-enabled pens to record your hand motion as you write on a special dotted paper that tracks the position of the pen.
Much like in Ready Player One, game designers have been incorporating haptic suits into their games for a while now. You can experience the feeling of being shot at (thanks to haptic patches that give you a jolt) when you play VR games at places like Zero Latency and Sandbox VR. Unlike playing games on your smartphone or desktop where you stare at your small screen like a zombie, you’ll feel immersed in say, a hospital or pirate ship, instead of the boring four walls of your room.
The world is now obsessed with minimalism and sleek designs that seem to erase part of what makes us human. We need to think of how to design in the digital world without letting the traditional objects vanish away or sacrifice the tactile experiences.
So much joy is derived from tactile objects – like listening to vinyl records, pressing the buttons of a calculator – that it’s a struggle to find a satisfactory digital counterpart. More than just nostalgia, old-school materials are worth keeping because it reminds us of what it means to be human.