Touch is personal and emotional. It provides the most intuitive and potent way we can express romantic or parental love, comfort a friend, calm a child’s jitters, and soothe or take comfort from a pet. Our first sense to develop, social touch is key to the well-being of the young, infirm or aged, as nurses well know; therapists rely on touch-based interventions in their interactions with children who are sensory-seeking or on the autism spectrum. When we ask people to describe how something feels, emotion words are highly represented: affect is a fundamental frame within which we understand what we feel.
Over the last decade, emerging academic and industry knowledge about affective touch has spanned neuroscience, psychology, engineering, physical therapy, entertainment and more. We now know that affective touch may be mediated by a nervous system separate from and likely complementary to, the somatosensory system of discriminative touch: c-tactile afferents convey a sense of pleasantness, are attuned to particular velocities, and tie to the emotionally connected insular cortex. How these two systems work together and how and which stimuli they optimally encode evoke exciting open questions.
Meanwhile, researchers are learning to use technological means to produce affectively modulated sensations, how to use them to communicate emotion to and between users and objects or robots, and integrate into applications. Some of this work is grounded in the study of naturalistic social touch - e.g., petting a furry animal, or interacting with colleagues at work. Others are reading the affect that is expressed within social touch, to drive emotionally responsive interactions with robots or devices in real-time.
This Cross-Cutting Challenge will describe this emerging area, which may be key to unlocking a wide array of meaningful haptic applications. To pursue major advances, it is vital that researchers spanning this disparate space come together, especially to leverage advances in science with advances in engineered systems and technologies. A wide range of perspectives will address two main questions:
(1) What is affective touch; what is our current scientific basis for understanding it? Where are the gaps and how might we collaborate to advance them?
(2) How do we build devices which display and measure affective touch? How can such technology address human interactions and therapeutic interventions?