The Communication Possibilities of Digital Touch

It is not hard to look back at technology innovation cycles and see how technology has advanced and impacted how we communicate. From the pencil, to the printing press, to computers, to the internet, and more recently our smartphones, all have evolved communication in some way. Each innovation has brought with it the ability to communicate both verbally and non-verbally in new forms. The telephone itself made verbal communication possible from a distance. Computers brought non-verbal communication into the digital era, evolving physical written letters into digital form to travel at near real time speeds. The cell phone made long distance verbal communication possible from any location. Smartphones further made the full spectrum of verbal and non-verbal communication possible from any location. However, what we learn when we study these technological advancements and how they have evolved our communication methods and patterns, is that ultimately, we have enabled new context in which to express and communicate digitally. In essence, technology has brought more communication options.

For example, prior to cell phones, many of us had pagers. The pager was basically an extension of the fixed landline. Someone could page you with a number and you would go to a fixed line phone and call the person back. As teenagers, we created numeric codes to send messages. 43770 was “Hello” for example. 143 was “I love you”. Effectively, every number or number combination had an alphabetical letter combination. Looking back, this was essentially an early form of text messaging, which, in and of itself, was a new option for communication. Not all conversation requires a lengthy voice dialogue. More often than not, short messages can suffice. It is the options that technology brings us that allow us to use them to communicate in different ways depending on the context of the conversation.

Many of you will also remember your first experiences with a BlackBerry. There was something profound about being able to see your email from a device other than your personal computer. We learned very quickly that, for some emails, quick responses would suffice and the BlackBerry was great for this. But for other emails, a more lengthy written response was necessary. For these tasks, we would return to the PC. The context of the response dictates which device we use in a multi-device world. This is what I mean by technology giving us options. Prior to the BlackBerry (or Palm Pilot, etc.), the PC was our only option for both long and short form email communication. As innovations like the BlackBerry were created, we were presented with more options.

Digital Touch

There are plenty more examples I can dig into but I wanted to frame the points above to turn our attention to smartwatches in general and the Apple Watch in particular. While dozens of questions remain about the Apple Watch, it is perhaps its potential to add a new communication element I find most intriguing at this point. What I mentioned above about humans communicating through verbal and written forms, I left out another vital communication tactic — the physical one. As part of my continuing study of humans, I became aware of some of the modern research on the science of touch in human communication. This article in particular from Berkeley is a good starter on the subject and this line is one of the most interesting:

In recent years, a wave of studies has documented some incredible emotional and physical health benefits that come from touch. This research is suggesting that touch is truly fundamental to human communication, bonding, and health.

The physical connection has been proven time and time again to be essential to healthy relationships. A series of studies highlighted in the report showed how people, even strangers, can communicate emotion through touch. Touch is an essential part of how we communicate. It is very personal and very intimate, yet is foreign to the digital world. In a way, I think Apple understands this. This block of text on the Apple Watch website explains the value of digital touch.

Screen Shot 2014-09-23 at 5.12.05 PM

What Apple is presenting with the Apple Watch appears like it may be the start of bringing digital touch as a communication method to the digital age. And if we think about the type of device that makes this type of digital touch communication possible, it makes sense it is done through a device we wear rather than one we keep in our pockets or bags.

While Apple may lead this effort initially, this is something that could expand even wider as the idea expands. A leading company in haptics named Immersion has been working on similar haptic communication as a language for years and could bring that solution to any wearable device.

In the same way technology has expanded our communication options, it has still not replaced many of our existing communication methods. In a way, communication has been extended through technology but not all prior forms have been made obsolete. Similarly, digital touch will not replace human contact but when we are away from our loved ones, friends and family, digital touch has the potential to extend that unique and intimate communication method in ways not possible before.

Published by

Ben Bajarin

Ben Bajarin is a Principal Analyst and the head of primary research at Creative Strategies, Inc - An industry analysis, market intelligence and research firm located in Silicon Valley. His primary focus is consumer technology and market trend research and he is responsible for studying over 30 countries. Full Bio

1,410 thoughts on “The Communication Possibilities of Digital Touch”

  1. I agree. The potential for new forms of communication via touch via the Apple Watch are quite interesting. What I am really looking forward to is when WatchKit is release and 3rd party developers can start to make apps for the Apple Watch. I am sure that we are going to see many interesting ideas that either build on existing iOS apps or start anew with the watch. Initially I do expect to see some silly ideas that are like Yo! but as developers are able to have more time with the SDK I do expect some really creative and interesting new apps that really make the Apple Watch in to something special.

  2. With messages arriving as haptic tapping on my wrist, I need not even look at my watch when eating dinner with others, or driving a car. Next, if I could manipulate my heartbeat rate to send a message back…..

  3. Oh come one, it is one thing to say it will ease communication
    but another thing entirely to suggest artificial touch will
    do the same as physical touch. physical touch is reward for
    socialization of the group.

    Life is designed by Evolution.
    You can fool it by having artificial light (cancer), artificial touch
    but there are consequences for them.

    Sun is good for the body as Vitamin D is produced where as
    artificial light affects the sleep cycle thus causing cancer when
    the body doesn’t get to clean up the mess. Computer and LED
    lights are even more problematic because of blue color.

    medicine is empirical science. So all those studies apply
    in the narrowest of margins.

    Humans were designed 4 millions years ago in plains of Africa. This is the reason humans have most cancer of any species of animal.

    1. As someone who has studied biology and evolution intimately, I get the impression that you are confusing intrinsic motivators with extrinsic ones and are using this mis-understanding to reinforce your worldview of neo-luddism.

      Evolution works in mysterious ways. In this case it is through chemical feelings of oxytocin that kinship and bonding are formed. Its one of the most robust and well-researched “empirical science” findings we have, and our understanding of ‘touch’ is only getting deeper. We’ve been studying this kind of social sciences since the at least the 1960’s: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2636191/ and we’ve only grown from there.

      For example, if we were designed by evolution to make babies, why do we use condoms? Its because the intrinsic motivation that evolution ‘designs’ into us is to get pleasure from sex. That sex makes babies is more just a coincidental effect – an extrinsic motivator that leads to this aspecting being reinforced through natural selection and other mechanisms of evolution.

      Touch is the same way: http://www.grandin.com/inc/squeeze.html

  4. Ben, first, my compliments on a well-considered, well-written, well-edited article.

    And, I agree. The more I think about the Apple Watch the more I think it will be a “sleeper” hit. An instance of people not knowing what they want until after they experience it; and I think the taptic feedback has not been well interpreted by the press. I think Apple’s vernacular in describing it has come across as hyperbole, with the conventional wisdom being that it will be essentially similar to a vibrating phone.

    The type of “tap” Apple is attempting to describe, I think, is much more subtle, and much more “personal,” to use their word, than an annoying vibrating phone, and I think it will enable a type of communication that will feel very real and very *immediate* to people and that will enable a connection that no digital device has yet enabled.

    – You’re on your way home from work, you send your wife the usual three taps (or whatever). Without thinking, looking at any device or having to interpret anything even as simple as a sentence, she knows you’ll be there soon. The language of touch registers in a more ancient, instinct-driven, primitive part of the brain than spoken or written words and carries additional innate signals of comfort, belonging and reassurance. While the physical tap on her wrist comes from the device, that’s unimportant. Emotionally, the touch came from you.

    – Your kid’s late getting home from school. You send a quick tap with a question mark, “what’s up?”

    – Your team scores, you send your friends a ding-ding-ding-ding-ding! series of taps. An immediate, shared connection.

    I’m becoming convinced that this has tremendous potential. It sounds so little, so easy, so basic, but it will be able to do so much to plug people into each other from a distance that it is absolutely, classic, Apple.

    And of course it’s only one of the things the Watch will do.

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