Stories: A new research fights against touch deprivation
TOUCHLESS, a new project supported under the EU’s Horizon 2020 EIC Pathfinder funding programme, proposes innovation in haptic technologies used in virtual social interactions. It could help people who cannot fulfil their need for touch, e.g. because of social distancing rules.
TOUCHLESS was selected among proposals submitted for FET Proactive Emerging Paradigms and Communities call (FETPROACT-EIC-07-2020), in subtopic A: Artificial Intelligence for extended social interaction.
The project works on technology enhancing virtual social interactions with the help of neurocognitive science. The new technology could allow people to enjoy physical contact while experiencing remote communication.
The need of interpersonal touch became even more obvious during recent times affected by measures preventing the spread of the novel coronavirus, such as social distancing rules. The researchers point out the situation:
“Sadly, many people now feel like they live in the society described in the 1990s science fiction movie Demolition Man, where physical contact is prevented and heavily sanctioned. The increased virtualisation of our social interactions feeds our hunger for touch, the lack of which can have profoundly negative consequences.”
The TOUCHLESS approach is unique, since major haptics companies focus mainly on functional aspects of touch technologies. The new technology developed by TOUCHLESS could enrich the tactile information channel to create meaningful social interactions and radically improve user experiences in virtual and synthetic spaces. TOUCHLESS team explains:
“Our ambition is to go beyond functional haptic technology (simple haptic notifications and feedback to discriminate between objects) and enable computer systems to intelligently create the experiences that were previously lost in the virtual transition. We will develop the next generation of touchless haptic technologies using neurocognitive models and a novel artificial intelligence (AI) framework. Without having physical contact with any device, users will receive digital touch sensations that evoke not only a functional response (i.e., receptor response), but also an experiential one (i.e., affective, social and cognitive).”
The 48-month project starts in January 2021. Participants of the project come from the United Kingdom, Denmark, Spain, Poland and Ireland. The coordinating institution is University College London (UCL) and the coordinator is Prof. Sriram Subramanian, expert in human-computer interaction who holds a Royal Academy of Engeneering Chair in Emerging Technologies. Other participanting entities are University of Copenhagen (Denmark), Ultraleap (United Kingdom), Public University of Navarre (Spain), SoftServe Poland and Crowdhelix (Ireland).
Dr. Diego Martinez Plasencia, from the Touchless team at UCL said: "This project is exciting because we will not only develop new mid-air touch-mimicking using ultrasound, heat or electrostatic stimulation. We will go deeper than ever, understanding how they help us bond, feel attached and engaged during touch interaction, and developing neuro-cognitive models to help us bring back these missing touch related aspects when creating mid-air, touchless experiences."
“We are very excited to be part of this ambitious and promising project while we aim to redefine how we connect with one another through touchless tactile technologies,” adds the Ultraleap team.