Haptics: 6 Reasons Touch is Important

Dr. Hannah Limerick, User Research and Insights Lead at Ultraleap, gives six reasons why we should all pay more attention to our sense of touch.

1. Touch gives us a sense of presence

Tactile sensations, vision, and proprioception (the sense of the position of our bodies in space) all combine to create our sense of body ownership or presence. When this is disrupted we become disorientated, losing our sense of what is our body and what isn’t.

Reaching out to touch things to assure ourselves of their reality is also a fundamental human behaviour. As Descartes put it, “Of all our senses, touch is the one considered least deceptive and the most secure.”

2. Sensory experience helps us explore the world

The complex interplay of sensations such as hot, cold, hard, soft, pain, itching, and so on is central to understanding and interacting with the world. Tactile sensations warn us, allow us to discriminate between objects, and (unlike vision) provide a 360° field of perception.

Hand holding a large piece of ice
Tactile sensations such as hot and cold help us to navigate the world.

3. Haptic feedback makes action possible

When I reach for a cup of coffee on my desk, it’s sight that directs my hand towards the cup. But it’s haptic feedback (a mix of tactile sensations and proprioception) that allows me to grip the cup and pick it up. I do all of this without having to think about it – it’s completely intuitive.

Couple holding coffee cups
Without haptic feedback, it’s impossible to do even the simplest actions. 

It’s extremely rare to lose your sense of touch, but the few people who have (such as Ian Waterman, whose amazing story you can read here) describe it as being effectively paralyzed. It takes months or years for them to learn how to manipulate objects using solely their sense of sight.

4. Touch is essential to emotional connection and wellbeing

Humans are social animals, and research shows touch builds emotional connection and is fundamental to social communication. Touch is essential to early childhood development and several studies (including one featuring Ultraleap's haptic technology) have shown that people can communicate emotions solely through touch.

Holding hands sunlight through trees
Touch is fundamental to connection and social communication.

5. Your sense of touch is astonishingly acute

Touch receptors in your fingertips are capable of detecting a skin displacement of just 0.00001mm. Or, to put it another way, you can detect an object the size of a molecule (albeit a very large one).

Hand brushing wheat in a field

6. Haptic technology is the next big thing

Haptic technology integrates touch into computer interfaces and virtual worlds.

We’re used to simple haptic devices such as the vibrate function on a mobile phone. Today, though, there are far more sophisticated systems – including the ultrasound device developed by Ultraleap, which precisely focuses ultrasound waves to create tactile sensations in mid-air.

Close up of ultrasound transducers
Ultraleap’s haptic technology uses ultrasonic speakers to create tactile sensations in mid-air.

I think what’s going on in VR and AR at the moment is fascinating. However, until we incorporate the sense of touch, we’re going to struggle to create user experiences that truly deliver immersion, a sense of agency, and meaningful social connections.

In VR and AR, touch is the missing piece of the puzzle.

Dr. Hannah Limerick is User Research and Insights Lead at Ultraleap.