Subtle interaction and sensory engagement

Digital technology rarely inspires emotion. It can be an effective conduit for emotion: transmitting a message to a loved one, for instance, or sharing the first picture of a new family member. However, the medium itself rarely evokes emotion in users.

One of the reasons for this is that most digital interactions are heavily biased towards our visual sense and our eyes are much less likely to move us to emotional engagement than our ears, our finger tips or even our taste buds.

Immersion is a pioneer of haptics, the art of tactile feedback, providing a technology platform which enables mobile devices to engage users through the sense of touch. The technology has been around for many years now, starting with basic on or off vibrations, and expanding to today’s state of the art piezo-based actuators, capable of creating a wide range of tactile sensations.

The technology is proven, but creative examples of its application have been slower to arrive. It is difficult for designers, many of whom come from a visual background, to understand how tactile elements (or audible elements, of that matter) can enhance user experience.

Dennis Sheehan of Immersion showed me their latest demonstration, intended to highlight the capabilities of the technology. I was able to play a virtual maraca by shaking a handset and feeling the vibrations respond according to the intensity of my movements.

As impressive as this fidelity was, Sheehan was keen to stress the more subtle applications of haptics being explored by his user experience team. Another demonstration used haptics to convey a sense of importance attached to certain email messages in a list. As I scrolled past a message from my virtual ‘boss’, the level of haptic sensation increased to ensure I gave it my full visual attention. A similar demonstration simulated a Facebook photo gallery, where haptics indicated which photos had comments attached, encouraging the user to tap to explore the discussion.

It is these augmentations of experience, where certain functions can be abstracted into a tactile dimension, which highlight the long-term value of haptics as part of integrated sensory design. As the pressures and anxieties of digital life start to burden users’ visual capacity, there will be a move to tap into other, less demanding senses.

However, one of the most significant challenges facing the proliferation of this technology is educating designers as to its possibilities and equipping them with tools which allow experiences to be iterated. There is a growing requirement for design tools which cross sensory boundaries to combine visual, audible and tactile elements, as well as allow experimentation across digital touchpoints, from phones to TVs.

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