Monday, October 31, 2011

Communicating via Roly Poly: The Remote Possibility of Touch

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.

There is no doubt that the explosion of Internet and wireless technologies has enabled the emergence of a variety of new forms of interpersonal communication. Like so many new technologies, what has once been considered a novelty is now an essential utility, like water or electricity. Today, texting, facebook, email, and photosharing are deeply integrated in our lives. Each new medium is accompanied by its own unique logic of expression. And yet, the expressive power of these media is in some ways constrained, and in other ways enabled by the affordances of each particular system. The entire ecosystem of Twitter, for example, is defined in 140 character snippets. Such a microform, we have found, far from being a painful restriction, has facilitated vast networks of communication. 

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?


Rose said...

I love the idea of the Roly Poly. As someone who has spent time being physically distant from people of importance to me, I have exploited all the means of closeness technology can hitherto provide--from letters and phone calls to skype. And I've noticed--these methods can only cater to the least intimate senses: hearing and sight. The subter smell, taste, and touch are as maddeningly elusive as ever--until, perhaps, now.

As I read this post my thoughts immediately went from movement to touch; I imagined how two people could use the Roly Poly in a way so that it would be a proxy for touch (for example, if the person's hand in the bottom right image was a few inches more to the left, and was impacted by the touch of the other). Touch is a sensation that we undervalue in our current society. We opt for flashier sounds and sights in terms of what we consider media, even though touch is in part responsible for everything from the development of a child's mental health to the balance of an adult's everyday psyche--in a first world abuzz with lawsuits and sex scandals, we cringe away from that most basic and most nourishing gesture, and it can leave us profoundly hollow in a way that only the Twitterverse can't fill. In all the languages of the world no words can stand in for a single kiss.

Anna Toledano said...

Although this is tongue-in-cheek (sorry, I couldn't resist), perhaps they've got the same idea?

I'd agree with Rose, though, that despite the lifelike feel of technologies, in some instances actual human contact is psychologically irreplaceable. Yet, perhaps human-animal contact is? Paro, the therapeutic robot baby seal, is a Japanese invention that is intended to help calm nursing home patients. Patients often conflate the robot seal with a real animal pet. It responds when you pet it, needs to "feed" (charge), and gets sad when you don't treat it well. While petting Paro doesn't send a pat to your dog back home, it seems to be successful in fooling its users into believing they are having a real action-response exchange with a living thing. Could robotic humans serve the same purpose, or does that transcend the world of cuteness into the weird and creepy?

Alison said...

I saw this video a while ago, and it came back to me while doing this week's readings, both of which are relevant to this post: While there is an intuitive, emotional response to symbols of physical presence (for exactly the reasons Ana and Rose talk about above), I also find the technological recreation of physical contact fascinating in the context of this video and the Lambert article this week (citation, in case someone not in class reads these:, which describe the way in which society increasingly values other types of evidence over touch in disciplines previously dominated by "touch expertise". As science and medecine on one hand turn increasingly towards advancements in technological equipment over touch, technology elsewhere is seeking to replicate touch itself, and its psychological effects.

center for archaeology said...

Just saw this great kickstarter project which seems to be exploring some of the same issues...

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