In The Eyes of the Skin (Wiley, 2012), Finnish architect Juhani Pallasmaa, Hon. FAIA, argues for an elevated appreciation of the sense of touch. “Touch is the sensory mode that integrates our experience of the world with that of ourselves,” he writes. “Even visual perceptions are fused and integrated into the haptic continuum of the self; my body remembers who I am and where I am located in the world.”

Design and architecture have always provided tactile experiences, but the sense of touch has not always been a primary focus. The same holds true for interfaces, or the controlled links between the physical world and virtual information. So-called haptic technology describes interfaces that provide tactile feedback to a user, such as vibrations generated through eccentric rotating mass actuators or linear resonant actuators (LRA)—devices common in game controllers or portable electronics. (For example, LRA powers Apple’s Taptic Engine.) However, haptic interfaces can now be found in other surfaces and elements in the built environment, often in combination with light, sound, and information generation.

CRYSTAL Interactive crystals of light by Daan Roosegaarde from Studio Roosegaarde on Vimeo.

Rotterdam, Netherlands–based Studio Roosegaarde is testing the boundaries with Crystal, a floor-based lighting installation featuring a collection of translucent salt crystal “rocks.” The wireless, LED-illuminated devices derive an electrical charge from a black power mat. The intensity and hue of the rocks change when manipulated by visitors.

Budapest-based experimental studio EJTech has created Chromosonic, a textile that changes color and pattern when touched. Using linen printed with thermochromic dye, designers Judit Eszter Kárpáti and Esteban de la Torre connected an Arduino device and a power supply to the fabric, creating a soft interface that responds to heat energy from auditory signals as well as users’ hands.

London-based Felix Faire’s Contact is a reactive multimedia installation that transforms any rigid plane into an audiovisual control surface. A combination of computer video projection and contact piezoelectric microphones enables a table, counter, or wall to become a light and sound instrument. Other inventive tactile interfaces include Sony’s Xperia Touch, a mobile projector that operates like Contact, and Breaded Escalope’s Shadowplay, a wall-mounted circle of light that displays the time via strategically aimed silhouettes of a user’s finger.

Another promising trajectory involves the use of space—not surfaces—for touch-based interaction. Gesture-based computing, whereby a user's mid-air gestures replace physical controls, powers several interface systems, including Microsoft’s Kinect and Nintendo's Wii. Bristol, U.K.–based Ultrahaptics enables users to engage with tactile interfaces mid-air and without the need for physical or visible cues. According to the company, Ultrahaptics’ technology “uses ultrasound to create rich, 3D shapes and textures that can be felt, but not seen,” allowing media authors to add tactile characteristics to “virtual objects, develop immersive holographic interfaces, and augment gesture control with natural tactile feedback.” The technology of mid-air haptics is particularly suitable for industrial or medical environments, where safety and cleanliness are everyday concerns. Additional proposed uses include smart-home, workspace, retail, and gaming applications.

In every case, the ways ultrasound-based haptic experiences are integrated within the designed environment represent novel and potentially significant architectural opportunities. The proliferation of wireless sensor networks associated with architectural surfaces and products has enabled the monitoring of human users and their biometric data. For example, Munich, Germany–based Future-Shape’s SensFloor transforms the ground plane into an expansive, capacitive sensing device. Designed to be installed as subflooring, SensFloor is capable of detecting foot traffic and other forms of contact—such as a person falling.

Similarly, the University of Tokyo’s Light-Sensitive Concrete employs optical fiber-infused concrete panels to sense ambient light, effectively detecting human presence via shadows cast on its surface. Montrose, Calif.–based SynTouch manufactures a sensor that emulates human touch. Consisting of electronics encapsulated within a fluid-filled, elastic skin, the company's BioTac provides machines with enhanced tactile capabilities that approach our own.

So what does this elevated awareness of tactility portend for architecture and design? One possibility may be found in "Haptic," a 2004 exhibition and accompanying book curated by Japanese designer Kenya Hara, president of the Nippon Design Center, in Tokyo. For the exhibition, Hara asked 22 designers, architects, and artists to create new objects with the sole motivation of “awakening the senses.” The thought-provoking results—including sandals that mimic different natural ground conditions, juice boxes whose wrappers emulate fruit skin, “breathing” remote controls, door knobs that shake your hand, and hairy fonts—reveal the profound potential of design that does not merely fixate on sight, but also incorporates touch and other senses to shape human experience. Given the variety of additional sensing technologies that have been developed in the 15 years since "Haptic," the unprecedented possibilities for touch-enhanced surfaces and spaces suggest a fundamental shift for architecture and design.