documentation 3RD skin

3RD skin – Documentation

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

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

Short read: For 3RD skin Marina Dessau (internil) builds vibrotactile contraptions and combines sound-image-touch sequences in immersive, as well as nonsensical ways. With the help of the built devices, VR/AR and her body, she investigates the perception and subjective experience of other intelligences. How do cephalopods, how do AI-based sensory systems assemble their world? Can we approximate the unanswerable question by adding the sense of touch to our common (sensory) assumptions about other species?

Long read: In his book Other Minds the philosopher Peter Godfrey-Smith explores the evolution of intelligent life and subjective experience: “What does it feel like to be an octopus? To be a jellyfish? Does it feel like anything at all? […] Subjective experience is the most basic phenomenon that needs explaining, the fact that life feels like something to us.”

For 3RD skin Marina Dessau stepped into an octopus’s tentacles. She read into what is known about cephalopods‘ and other animals‘ behavior and intelligence, as well as into the general concepts of AI-based systems as a means of sensory augmentation. She experimented with self-built, purposefully visible tactile contraptions and began with the technical planning of haptic feedback applications for performance and mixed reality (tactile vision substitution systems). 

The idea of her basic artistic research 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 way as usually aimed for in an immersive MR experience. She also disconnected tactile sensations from a perceptual logic by applying nonsensical combinations of stimuli and/or contradictory tactile information. While i.e. taking on another animal‘s POV through VR glasses, such as an action cam filmed flight of an eagle or a journey of a shark, she physically copied the animal’s movements with her body (as close as one can get when lacking wings or gills) and added sensations of air flow from various angles, temperature, touch etc. After overcoming the initial distressing over-stimulation of the nervous system, a promising window into imagining ‘other minds’ opened up: The (partially repetitive) stimulation with unfamiliar tactile information in combination with physically adopted visuals led to a body-sensation-based interrelation with the surroundings, as well as strongly altered states of perception.

The skin turned out to be a projection membrane to contemplate on and experiment with the assumption of how other species or neural networks assemble their worlds. While the human point of view cannot fully be stepped out of, with the help of the ‘thinking body’ Marina will keep approximating questions around subjective experience. During the subsequent phase of the research project, human perspectives will be added and combined with tactile sensory input.

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

I built a walkable surround-sound-jacket which makes you feel like you’re melting with your personal mini-band (or orchestra, on a good imagination day) or planetary system, or whatever else you decide to send through the speakers.

5. Adding visuals

(to be completed)

All pictures on this site: © Marina Dessau / lars gressmann