MoMA's latest offering, "Talk to Me", explores the recent movements in the design of human interaction with man-made objects. In recent years, design disciplines have taken a new angle on the old themes of form, function, and meaning. Recently there has been a movement to integrate these with even more intimate and ambitious forms of communication including ideas of dialogue, connection, and even emotion. One object on display at the MoMA exhibit that struck me as particularly evocative was the Roly Poly, from the Design Incubation Center in Singapore.
From the Design Incubation Center website:
Roly Poly is designed to enable two individuals to “sense” the presence of each other even though they may be physically apart. The mirrored movements in a pair of Roly Polys is such that a soft tap to rock one will simultaneously rock its partner to the same degree, creating a corresponding reaction in the other instantly. While the Internet provides a vast array of text messaging and video calling interaction options, Roly Poly offers a unique, spontaneous and subtle mode of instant communication, exclusive between two individuals.
However, these forms of communication just mentioned are based on 19th and 20th century metaphors of communication: the typewriter, the cable telegram, the photograph. These paradigms of communication are ones that we are extremely comfortable with, and function well in our lives. But the potential to access other, less traditional, forms of personal interconnection through digital technology has hardly been explored. The Roly Poly represents just such a shift away from traditional forms of symbolic communication towards haptic forms of expression. There is something beautifully intuitive, nuanced and yet simple and ambiguous about the Roly Poly. Like the Ouija board used in seances to communicate with the dead, the Roly Poly allows for the externalization of one of the most neglected of human senses: the proprioceptive sense, that is, the sense of orientation, of movement.
This proprioceptive sense, perhaps more than any other, has proven the least abstractable. This at least in part accounts for its neglect by contemporary communications technology. It is also perhaps the most intimate, the most context specific, and yet, paradoxically the most universal. The message of touch is a challenge to define abstractly, but is easily recognized. The possibilities for communication touched upon by the Roly Poly opens up a world of questions about the future of human communication as well. As our daily personal experiences become increasingly subsumed by the remoteness of digital communications, how will we adapt the basic human wiring for haptic communication (that is, for touch) to an inherently sterile and abstracted medium? Is such a simple gesture easily interpreted between people? between cultures? And how does the distance that separates us when we use the Internet to communicate affect the shared knowledge of meaning on which such an intimate medium as touch relies?