Can Touch This: Affective Tactile Interfaces and the Power of Touch

By Anna Ho, Strategist

Tell me I’m not alone. Do you find yourself mindlessly tapping the home button or taking a casual swipe at the screen on your smartphone throughout the day for no apparent reason? Presumably I do this to check for notifications, but I wear an Apple Watch that immediately notifies me of incoming messages. There’s really no reason for me tap on my smartphone as much as I do.

Throughout the day, whether I’m affixed to my work computer or standing in line at the supermarket, I find myself compelled to make physical contact with my phone. Some might characterize such behavior as indicative of an “addiction” to my smartphone. However, I suspect that like many people living in this age of ubiquitous touch devices, I’ve simply acquired a habit, a routine set of actions triggered by my need for a distraction, a brief respite from boredom or a mentally exhausting exercise.

My colleague, Jessica Barnes, a Creative Director here at SI who has been exploring the power of touch interfaces, theorizes that tactile interactions, specifically the physical act of moving your fingertips across a responsive surface, elicits an emotional response that enhances our attachment to whatever it is we’re engaging with. I think she’s onto something.

Research has shown that our bodies are wired with an array of nerve fibers and sensory receptors that render physical interactions into electrical signals that are processed by the brain. This system of nerve fibers, known as affective or emotional touch, when engaged, sends information to the insular cortex, the part of the brain that has been linked to emotion and the regulation of our body’s internal conditions. These nerve fibers, suggest neuroscientists, are why touch is crucial to encouraging human interactions. More than just a means to discriminate sensations or feelings of pleasure and pain, our tactile systems provide a pathway to the part of the brain that fosters emotional connections to others.

If touch has the power to foster relationships between humans, is it possible that all that tapping and swiping I do on my iPhone is fueling my emotional attachment to my smartphone? Can touch interactions foster connections to inanimate objects?

According to a study published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, interactions with a product via a touch interface, like that on a mobile device, can increase the perceived value of the product. The findings, say researchers, illustrate how touch interfaces can increase a sense of ownership.

It’s still left to be seen whether or not engaging with a tactile interface can be compared to the power of touch between humans, but it’s an intriguing question that has got us here at SI looking at developments in sensing technology, haptics, and artificial intelligence. As advancements in these fields continue to converge, we’ll not only have the tools to build a richer sensory experience, but also the ability to create emotionally immersive experiences that genuinely resonate with users.

On the flip side, it’s important to remember that meaningful touch can be as simple as a few taps.  The haptics used when sending someone a heartbeat on your Apple Watch is a good reminder of this: Thump. Thump. Thump. That’s all it takes to say ‘I love you‘.

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