The dome educates visitors about the value of one of the most neglected of our senses – touch. Curve Editor Belinda Stening explores the role of touch and tactility for designers.

Our skin is what stands between us and the world while our fingertips are one of the most sensitive parts of the body. Touch frequently combines with the other senses and it is ten times stronger than emotional contact, affecting everything we do.

According to artist Diane Ackerman, touch is not only basic to our species, but key to it.

“When we touch something on purpose, the fender of a car for example, we set in motion our complex web of touch receptors. The brain registers this response and registers smooth, cold, soft etc.”

Ackerman says touch receptors can be blanked out by tedium but when a change occurs they send the brain into a flurry of activity. Our palette of feelings which is much more diverse than hot or cold, pain and pressure is highly stimulated.

“Touch by clarifying and adding to the shorthand of the eyes teaches us that we live in a three dimensional world,” she says.

“It teaches us that life has depth and contour.”

Touch allows us to find our way in a darkened world or in other circumstances when we can’t fully use our other senses.

The Tactile Dome 

The Tactile Dome, an internal sculpture exhibit that people feel but never see is on permanent exhibition at the Exploratorium in San Francisco’s Palace of Fine Arts. 

The exhibit is encased in a geodesic dome about the size of a large weather balloon. Visitors enter through a light-lock room into a totally dark maze. Then, for an hour and fifteen minutes they feel, bump, slide and crawl through and past hundreds of materials and shapes, which blend, change and contrast. 

The purpose is to disorient the sensory world so that the only sense the visitor can rely on is touch. The sensation is so outside ordinary experience that a few people panic. An attendant in a control panel can reach every part of the anthill like maze almost instantly. 

According to the exhibit promoters, pre-opening visitors have compared the experience to being born again, turning yourself inside out head first, being swallowed by a whale, and inevitably, being enfolded in a giant womb. 

Seemingly the tactile equivalent of a light show, the tour is actually a carefully planned and structured succession of shapes, temperatures and textures, which require the full range of the touch sense to perceive. 

The idea is to make people aware of what a complex, sensitive and under used sense touch is, and to train them to use the astonishing range of its perceptions, which include detection of pressure, pain, temperature and kinaesthesia, as well as cutaneous, internal body and muscle awareness.

The Tactile Dome is the brainchild of Dr August F Coppola who became interested in perceptual prejudice while directing interdisciplinary studies as head of California State College’s Honours Program. He gradually came to realise that philosophy, physics and even psychology have always relied overwhelmingly on visual evidence to interpret the world. 

“Yet the irony is that touch is still the test of reality,” said Coppola.

“It’s the tangible, the concrete, what you can put your finger on when your feet are on the ground.”

Coppola believes people are actually prejudiced against the touch sense. “It’s development gets off to a bad start,” he said, “for as soon as we’ve stopped chewing our toes, the first commandment in life is given: ‘Don’t touch’. The Exploratorium is one of the few museums in the world where visitors are encouraged to touch and even manipulate the exhibits.” 

One result of the touch taboo, Coppola believes, is that people become leery of physical contact with each other and the environment, which leads to a sense of isolation and loneliness.

As evidence of our overly visual values, Coppola points to the overemphasis on fashionable clothes and the benefits of tourism. “This route leads to passive, non-participatory activities like TV watching,” he said.

From soft to smart...

Barbara Marshall, from Marshall Design, says worldwide trends are endorsing the importance of touch when looking to improve design that incorporates soft with smart.

Marshall, who has worked with numerous manufacturers in colour and finish, uses the latest trend forecasts and her own research based on years of experience and attendance at major international conferences to advise designers and product manufacturers.

“Most designers and product manufacturers in Australia would be very familiar by now with ‘soft’ materials and the use of ‘soft’ finishes such as moulded silicones and rubberised paints,” she said.

“These have been popular since the mid 90s in product design, especially in consumer products such as toothbrushes, kitchen utensils, medical products and products worn close to the body such as mobile phones.”

Marshall believes brand image and market position of the product, and whether the product is to be touched by the hand or another part of the human body, greatly affects the finishes and textures used in its design.

Marshall says that when looking back at the 1970s and 80s, the culture then was masculine, hard-edged, rational and mechanical in outlook. Glass, chrome and stone prevailed.

“The mid 90s saw the pendulum swing, which is always the way with both cultural and aesthetic trends. There is always a reaction in the opposite direction – this relates to gestalt theory.

“Soft materials and forms were a reaction to hard edged mechanical looks. Sensation and emotion became more important. The shape of the body was more important also. We saw a lot of skin, flesh colours and animal hide like features and finishes.”

Marshall says that worldwide trends and forecasts show we are now slowly moving back to the scientific and rational. We are looking for smart materials with in-built features like ‘soft switching’ and hidden technology.

These smart materials react and respond to touch by changing temperature, or reacting to pressure, the latest materials are now changeable, interactive materials.

“So from animal skins and sensation we are swinging towards intelligent materials,” says Marshall.

“Micro-encapsulation is big. This is when ‘active’ additives like scents and bacteria are added to a material. For example, shirts are now being made with added antiperspirant that is activated during the day when body heat and moisture is highest.

“Polyurethane has emerged as a real ‘turn of the century’ material, it is the acceptable face of plastic. It can have squeaky and scratchy qualities and in other forms be as soft as a baby’s bottom.

“What is big in texture is contrast. We are seeing a big difference in the tactile finishes themselves and how they are used together. It will be quite common to see smooth vinyls that are soft and warm next to rugged, tough, industrial finishes in a car interior, for example.”

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