Touchbox: Intriguing touch between strangers

Open Access: PDF

Hobye, Mads. 2012. Touchbox: Intriguing touch between strangers. In Proceedings of the 2012 ACM annual conference extended abstracts on Human Factors in Computing Systems Extended Abstracts (CHI EA ’12). ACM, New York, NY, USA, 1023-1026.

ABSTRACT – The Touchbox is about facilitating intriguing touch interaction between strangers. The Participants each wear a pair of headphones, and when they touch each others bare skin, they both hear a complex sound pattern. Previous (successful) work involved a skilled Performer and one Participant; the Touchbox was designed to be played by pairs of pristine Participants exploring the interaction situation on their own. It turned out that their interaction experiences were quite engaging albeit more varied in mood and character. The Touchbox illustrates a novel approach to embodied interaction design where social norms are transcended by means of daring and captivating interactions.

Keywords: Social play, pushing norms, interactive sound, embodied interaction, bare-skin touch.

DOI: http://doi.acm.org/10.1145/2212776.2212376

Other articles published by Medea researchers at CHI 2012 and alt.chi 2012 are Jonas Löwgren’s and Bo Reimer’s Designing Collaborative Media: A Challenge for CHI? and Pelle Ehn’s and Per Linde’s et al What is the Object of Design?

Touchbox: Copenhagen 2011 from Mads Hobye on Vimeo.

Article summary
The first thing you see is a strange-looking wooden box with a vintage light bulb and an analogue meter. It looks like a quasi-scientific instrument from the 60s that will measure your health and serve to convince you to buy snake oil or to join a cult. This appearance was designed to spark your curiosity and set you in a mood for exploring the system.

The Touchbox is about facilitating intriguing touch interaction between strangers. The Participants each wear a pair of headphones, and when they touch each others bare skin, they both hear a complex sound pattern. Previous (successful) work involved a skilled Performer and one Participant; the Touchbox was designed to be played by pairs of pristine Participants exploring the interaction situation on their own. It turned out that their interaction experiences were quite engaging albeit more varied in mood and character. The Touchbox illustrates a novel approach to embodied interaction design where social norms are transcended by means of daring and captivating interactions.

The Touchbox system offers a play session for two Participants at a time. The role of the technology is to sense physical bare-skin connection between the Participants where the sensing yields analogue values in a range starting from a few centimeters from actual touch (what I refer to as the aura), via light touch, to full contact. The values are converted into a relatively complex soundscape which is played back to each Participant through their headphones. The headphones make the interactive soundscape a privately shared experience between the Participants by limiting surrounding sounds.

The analogue nature of skin touch sensing, and relatively complex functional relations between input and output, together form an open and ambiguous interaction surface for the Participants, encouraging them to explore the soundscape together and serving as an excuse to sidestep normal conventions in physical touch between strangers.

Most importantly, the Touchbox showed that it is possible for two pristine Participants to get an engaging experience together in a manner similar to how a Performer knowing the system would play it with a Participant.

However, it must be noted that the role of the Performer was not completely out of the equation. The Participants needed to be introduced to the system in a way that also set the mood of the experience they were going to have. To this end, Participants who tried the Touchbox for the second time tended to take on the role of a guide, showing their partners different ways of playing, and the more subtle nuances of touching in the air.

Related articles
The concepts explored in this article are also discussed in the article Touching a Stranger: Designing for Engaging Experience in Embodied Interaction, published in the International Journal of Design.

Copyright notice
Copyright is held by the author/owner(s). CHI 2012, May 5–10, 2012, Austin, TX, USA. ACM 978-1-4503-1016-1/12/05.