Feeling Touchy-Feely – Walter Mitty Project #1


This is the first in series of posts about projects I wish I could do.

I think lustily about how cool it would be to do them, but then a brief comes in, or the geyser needs fixing,and they sink into a pit in some corner of my brain, where they remain, surfacing every now and then at vulnerable moments as wistful pangs.

BUT  NOW I HAVE A BLOG! Even if I don’t end up doing them, at least the ideas see the light of day as a post.

They’re called Walter Mitty projects for obvious reasons.

Touch is big word that our senses understand

In India, the reason food is traditionally eaten with our hands is that the sense of touch is an essential component of the stuffing-your-face process, along with the smell, taste and appearance. Bengalis mash that fish, South Indians caress that rice and Punjabis have a good handle on those Tandoori chicken legs.

It’s important. Hot/cold, hard/soft, smooth/rough, sensual/er…not sensual; the things we touch send our brain important signals that we respond to positively or negatively. Ahem…Over to next section…

All Touch and no Feel – The truncated version of touch in the digital world  

The sense of touch in the digital world has been predominantly used to manipulate content on screen. Sure, ubiquitous computing devices like sensors refute that, but I’m really talking about conscious interactions that we make on our tablets, phones, ATMs etc.

But is it enough to relegate the magnificent, multifarious sense of touch to simply advancing content on screens? Have we done justice to the ‘feeling’ part of the act of touching on our digital devices?

Two totally cool projects that use Touch AND Feel

Project 1 : The Mud Tub

Clay Shirky gave this lovely talk (below) in which he described a variety of student projects at the Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP) at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University.

In the first project, called ‘Mud Tub’ the cold, clean interaction with technology is broken by the act of manipulating an interface by shifting mud around, a dirty and messy interaction, that makes you FEEL something along with the act of touching. It’s the absolute opposite of clean UI.

Project 2: Skål (Norwegian for bowl) – Playing with media

In this project (video below), a baby places her toys in ‘the bowl’ and thereby triggers content on screen. The intimacy the baby feels with her toys, the touch and feel of them, is not broken in the act of triggering the digital content. How much cooler is that than clicking on a button?!

My Walter Mitty project – THE TAG & VANQUISH GAME

I wanted to be a little analytical about the act of touching myself. (okay that sounds WRONG :))

What I mean is, I began thinking about the act of touching (better?).

I really like the element of play from ‘The bowl’.

I began thinking, ‘What if two kids playing ‘tag’, the oldest and most common game in which the very act of touching…(er making contact), moves the game onward, could be augmented digitally in some way?’

So in the context of exploring touch and feel, here goes…

Imagine a field in which kids are playing Tag. The entire activity is being captured on camera and being played back in real-time on a giant screen that the kids can see.

Blob-tracking technology (here’s a quick visual explanation) keeps track of kids movements as they run around, possibly placing ‘avatars’ their favourite characters on top of their heads for added fun.

A real time camera feed captures the kids game, and blob tracking technology places He-Man and Skeletor avatars over their heads as they run around

A real-time camera feed captures the kids game, and blob tracking technology places He-Man and Skeletor avatars over their heads as they run around

As the denner (that’s what we used to call it when we played as kids) runs about, chasing the other kids, ‘tagging’ them, the avatars on the defeated kids’ heads get replaced with the denner’s avatar (more He Man avatars in this case), so that as the game progresses he is able to form an army of identical avatars on screen.

Possibly animated characters on screen cheer him as he tags more people, multiplying his army. Anything can happen really. It’s up to the kids i guess!

Using the same blob tracking technology, coupled with the ingenuity displayed by Chris O’Shea in the ‘hand from above’ video below, the denner could, on making contact, cause his victim to…say, go up in a puff of smoke on screen, or fly out the screen (like the Romans in Asterix comics at the mercy of the magic potion :)) .

When the denner tags another kid, he is catapulted into oblivion Asterix comic style

When the denner tags another kid, he is catapulted into oblivion like the poor Romans in Asterix comics

Summary – Retaining the ‘contact’ in the contact sport 

As people get more used to texting instead of chatting, and liking instead of loving, its worth thinking about the ills of simple translation of a ‘real world’ thing into a ‘virtual, connected world’ thing.

Talking face to face is different from texting because of a degree of artifice that can creep into the latter activity by virtue of the ability to delay response. Real people look waaay different from their Facebook profile photos because of the capacity to edit, crop and curate. Everyone looks better, talks smarter and generally seems to be having a better time than you are.

Unlike a video game, including stuff like kinect, where the action happens on screen, a kid playing this version of TAG & VANQUISH gets to run around unencumbered. The game itself is unaltered; the song remains the same, as Robert Plant would say.

In the spirit of touchy feely design, the grit and dust and bruises of the contact sport that is TAG & VANQUISH remain, yet the power of computing adds significant value.

Nothing is lost in translation.

Featured image by Frederic Humbert using Attribution, Share Alike licence 


3 thoughts on “Feeling Touchy-Feely – Walter Mitty Project #1

  1. Being blind I touch the words on my computer screen by means of a braille display connected to the device. In effect what a sighted person is seeing on screen is replicated by the display over which I run my fingers. I use Jaws software which converts text into speech and braille enabling blind people to use a Windows machine. In addition, as a small child I learned how to use a Perkins Brailler, a machine which punches holes onto paper allowing blind people to produce braille.

    • Thank you for your very valuable comment Kevin. I think you answered a question i had posed in my post in the affirmative.

      “…is it enough to relegate the magnificent, multifarious sense of touch to simply advancing content on screens? Have we done justice to the ‘feeling’ part of the act of touching on our digital devices? ”

      It was a rhetorical question, meant to lead people into the next section of my post, which is essentially about exploratory work in the area of touch interfaces.

      i stand corrected.

      Yes it is enough. And we are doing justice to the feeling part of the act of touching with the devices you mention.

      • You are welcome. I am glad my comment was helpful. It will be interesting to see what happens as virtual reality applications develop to a point where people can feel sensations in a similar (perhaps not precisely the same way) as they can in the real world. The possibilities for entertainment are massive but, as VR enhances we may face a new form of addiction with people prefering to inhabit the VR world of beautiful sensations rather than the (often) more mundane one in which we all have to live.

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