documentation 3RD skin

3RD skin – Documentation

Artistic Research on Tactile Perception and Haptic Technologies for Performance and Mixed Reality

– Marina Dessau –

Artistic research residency funded by the Minister of State and Federal Government Commissioner for Culture and Media, the Fonds Darstellende Künste and Flausen +, hostet by the TD Berlin

© Marina Dessau / Lars Gressmann

Time period: January / February 2021

Marina Dessau (internil) builds vibrotactile machines, combines sound-image-touch sequences in non-logical ways & investigates the perception of other intelligences. How do cephalopods, or how do AI’s assemble their world? Can we approach the unanswerable question by adding the sense of touch to our common sensory assumptions about other species?

For ‚3RD skin‘ Marina Dessau read into what is known about cephalopods‘ and other animals‘ behavior and intelligence, as well as into the general ideas behind computer vision. She experimented with self-built, purposefully visible ‚tactile apparatuses‘ and began with the technical planning of haptic feedback applications for performance and mixed reality. The idea was to explore the effect of sensory stimuli such as pressure, touch, heat or cold when combined with visual and audio material in an amplifying and thus immersive way (as usually aimed for in an MR experience), as well as to disconnect tactile sensations from a perceptual logic by applying nonsensical combinations of stimuli (simultaneous introduction of differing thermal stimuli side by side on the skin surface , combining imagery with contradictory tactile information, looking for sensory absences where a certain stimulus would be expected under ’natural circumstances‘ etc). While the human point of view can naturally not be stepped out of, the attempt was to approximate what a non-human perception might possibly feel like through experimenting with the sense of touch.

3RD skin – Notes.

  1. Tactile perception training
  2. Exposure to tactile stimuli only (one sensation at a time)
  3. Exposure to tactile stimuli combined in unusual ways
  4. Combining touch and audio
  5. Adding visuals
  6. Future plans and visions

  1. Tactile Perception Training

In a daily tactile training I sensitized the fingertips, the skin on my hands and other parts of the body (mainly face, arms and torso) to a wide variety of surfaces while simultaneously excluding other sensory stimuli as much as possible. More awareness was directed towards touch stimuli and perception in everyday life. After only a few days, there was a quickly growing differentiation between the bulk of common stimuli (typing, holding a glass, leaning against a wall..), as well as rare (re)discoveries of unexpected stimuli (sitting in a bathtub filled with warm water, then slowly sliding down into the water with head hair still dry, tiny air bubbles still caught in now wet hair leave from the back of the head pushing upwards towards the water surface sliding along the back of the skull, the upper neck, along the backside of the ears, the temples, towards the surface). A set of questions formed along the way: Which body parts are involved? How much skin surface is in contact with a surface or other sources of external impact, such as wind, sun etc.? What do the transitions from ‘contact’ to ‘no contact’ feel like on the skin? What does the inner attention go after, and in what order, when scrutinizing a complex sensation? Exposing myself to an active daily training I believe to have observed that one seems to quickly get precise at being able to scan the touched environment and categorize perceived qualities (shape, surface texture, consistency, temperature etc.).

  1. Exposure to tactile stimuli only (one sensation at a time)

I began to come up with ideas for simple and basic experiments using coarse self-made ’sensory apparatuses’ which generated sensory stimuli. In contrast to MR experiences which aim to produce the smallest and lightest gadgets possible, for performance contexts detectability of a stimulus producing machine is intended. Used objects and materials: fans (with tinsel), radiant heaters, containers filled with ice cubes and cooling pads, Peltier elements, vibrating components, speakers, air pressure, clay and electrical muscle stimulation (EMS). 

I exposed myself to thermal radiation, to air flow of different temperatures, to random touch stimuli for varying lengths of time, sometimes simultaneously, in different combinations and on different parts of the body. 

Working with clay turned out to be a rich, though unrepeatable experience. One material provided for many sensations of touch at once: cold, warm, smooth, crumbly, rough, stretched skin, pain of various qualities etc. 

  1. Exposure to tactile sensations combined in unusual ways

Combining sensory stimuli in ways which were unusual for the body, meaning that one probably wouldn’t find them as such in nature, led to unexpected and curious results.

In the above picture I’m seated on a stool in front of a little table with a candle on one side of it and a container filled with ice cubes on the other side. I’m holding one hand above the candle, the other hand is almost touching the ice cubes inside the vessel. My left foot is standing on a cooling pad covered with a thin layer of cloth, the right one is positioned above a candle parked with its heel on a pedal stool which is positioned next to the candle (so that I can almost relax the foot). Air is being blown by a ventilator from the right, while a heater is radiating heat from the left aiming at my torso. I would hold the position for at least for half an hour. Then I would switch up the order of the various sources of heat or cold into all kinds of combinations. Here’s an excerpt from my scribbled notes:

Notes research diary:

  • At first: overwhelming sensation of frustration and confusion, had to get up and walk it off, feels like the brain is overstimulated, exposed to stimuli attack, even some aggression there; maybe I can’t make sense of the simultaneous hot and cold perceptions, doesn’t even help to close eyes
  • It helps to let the inner attention scan one sensation at a time, one after the other … first just scan the cold spots, or take cold, one hot, then air..
  • Beginning to create an inner landscape of the various sensations of temperature and air flow which I can additionally regulate by slightly adjusting the positions of hands and feet and leaning the upper body towards one or the other side
  • My body felt fragmented, as if the sensations become my extended limbs or vice versa… when moving limbs slightly, especially with eyes closed, it feels like I’m hovering in space; also feels like I can stretch the space because in some strange way I’m losing inner measures of what I think corresponds with the measures of the usually perceived space around me  – wondering whether this can be added to an AR/VR experience in which one has extended limbs in the visual and in addition to vibrotactile sensations which indicate I hold or touch something at a distance different temperatures are added (as far as I’m aware there’s just one suit on market which tried to integrate temperature + touch but then stopped implementing that.. didn’t work in the end.. find out more!)
  •  I felt like a soft, hovering cephalopod (maybe I’ve just seen too many documentaries on them…)

4. Combining touch and audio

Here’s a winner: I built a walkable surround-sound-jacket which makes you feel like you’re melting with your personal mini-band, or planetary system, or whatever else you decide to send through the speakers. Being exposed to sound and touch at the same time, especially this close to the body, doesn’t sound like much during the planning phase. Now, I do not want to take the jacket off anymore.

5. Adding visuals

(to be completed)

All pictures on this site: © Marina Dessau / Lars Gressmann