chapter  8
19 Pages

Touch in computer-mediated communication

Touch is a sensory modality fundamental to interpersonal communication. From earliest infancy our experience of the world and our understanding of social context and the character of our relationships with others are shaped by touch. Tactile contact, and the occasions of its display, are governed by a complex, culturally variable set of rules and norms. In particular the impact of touch has been demonstrated to vary widely with relational intimacy and the relative status of interlocutors. Thus what may be welcome in the context of an intimate relationship or between equals may be perceived to be intrusive or patronizing between strangers or in pairs where there is a wide status discrepancy. Although touch is a critical component of the interpretation of interpersonal behavior, its implementation in computermediated communication is yet to be realized in any significant way. In this chapter we report on ongoing research, still largely in the laboratory, which seeks to make tactile communication a feature of social interaction over the network. This work, in a field generally referred to as “haptics,” involves the sensation of shape and texture a computer user feels when virtually “touching” a digital object (for example, a 3D model of a friend’s hand) with a force-feedback device such as a PHAnToM stylus or an instrumented Cybergrasp glove. In our laboratory at USC’s Integrated Media Systems Center, we have enabled people to experience a sense of mutual touch over the internet, stroking the fingers of a partner at a remote location. We have found that not only are people able to feel the touch of their remote partner, and feel co-present with the partner, but they sometimes make attributions about the partner’s personality and character based on the way in which they are touched. We discuss this and related work and speculate about the necessary conditions for the sense of touch to become an everyday component of computer-mediated communication. First, however, we will review relevant literature on the impact of touch on interpersonal communication from its origins in parent-child interaction to its expression in adult relationships in social life and the workplace.