Please don’t touch: What will happen when the most intimate sense goes virtual?

by dawnsmms13


When I was a child, I had a Bambi storybook with flocked illustrations. I was entranced by the Disney drawings and the tale itself, but what I loved most – and the reason I remember the book even now – was the delight of reaching out and stroking Bambi’s soft fur.  It felt good to my little fingers, and it made Bambi seem more real.

Now imagine sitting and looking at the hand-held screen where you’re reading this. Open a new window to – let’s say – a great Caribbean resort with sugary-looking sand and glistening turquoise water.  Run your fingers over the beach and feel that sand, reach out for a wave and touch its liquid surface.

IBM tells us that in five years, this will be real.

So what does this mean for consumers of the online experience?

This is a seismic shift. Touch is perhaps the most intimate of our senses. Sight and sound? Very powerful, but less personal. We judge the accuracy of sight and hearing all the time, and our responses are readily validated through the perceptions we share with others (think Instagram, Vine, YouTube). In our day-to-day world, though, touch demands physical closeness, and often entails a crossing of boundaries. What will it mean if we begin to divorce touch from proximity and intimacy?

Virtual touch will expand our understanding of the physical world and make it more immediate.

For one thing, we’ll be able to touch things we never have before. I’ll be able to feel the leaf of a protected rainforest plant. You’ll be able to run your hand over the fin of a shark. This new technology will provide a tactile experience beyond our individual worlds, and add a dimension of richness to our online explorations. For those seeking to understand the difference between the textures of charmeuse and shantung, the answer will be at our fingertips. For students learning a new language, concepts like smooth, slippery, and rough will be experienced directly.  For viewers watching the news online, that fire on the other side of town may become more real than we want it to. And physicians who want to examine a wound long distance will be able to touch the injury.

Virtual touch will create a new form of shared art.

Virtual touch offers many creative possibilities.  Imagine curated online galleries dedicated to art through touch, using shapes and textures to create an independent experience greater than the sum of its parts, the way individual musical notes combine to make a composition or words create stories. (This is a prediction, but it’s not without basis: Returning to my low-tech childhood, I remember the classic haunted house. A blindfolded child is led on a tour of scary experiences – a hesitant hand reaches out and feels eyeballs, cold brains, squishy guts. Peeled grapes, boiled head of cauliflower, cold cooked spaghetti.)  It becomes real because it feels real. Reality is redefined.

Virtual touch will have more than a touch of the commercial about it.

In our society, most new products and technologies are driven by a commercial need. Initially, virtual touch will be paid for by the companies that can see a viable money-making application: vacation destinations, fabric purveyors, furniture makers, even car manufacturers enticing prospective buyers to feel those heated leather seats (I have, and they’re great!)  The ability to touch a product will make a purchase that much more tempting.

Will virtual touch alter our relationship to the world?

Finally, there’s a broader question.  While virtual touch may unite us through shared tactile understanding, will it change our relationship to the personal? What if an experience normally associated with emotional intimacy – let’s say, the first time you touch a newborn’s slight fuzz of hair – is felt not by touching an infant you know, but on a sensor pad? Will the sensation, free from context, create an emotional disconnection in which the virtual becomes real, and the true experience loses its emotional value? Will virtual touch change our perception of the intimate? Will it desensitize us?

Nobody really knows where this will lead.  What I do know is that my early memory of stroking Bambi’s fur is also wrapped in the warmth of a cherished bedtime ritual. What if my mother had been at my side as we listened, and saw, and touched the Bambi story onscreen? Maybe it would have been the same; I don’t know. And we won’t know until we can sit down with tomorrow’s children, and ask them what the new world was like.