Perceiving Space: Haptics

This section may more accurately be titled “Perceiving space: Other”, as senses other than touch, like smell, will be discussed here. The sense of “self” is separated and discussed over here. This page focuses on external “feeling” senses.

Sight and Sound may be the primary tools we have to perceive space, but they are also the most processed and assembled from a variety of cues and knowledge. They are the most mediated, illusory, and thus manipulatable. Much harder to manipulate is our sense of touch and our sense of selves.

While this presents a challenge to designers, it’s also why experiences that effectively consider these senses can be among the most powerful and effective.

Fist, lets discuss what to do without the senses we don’t have control over. Despite the lack of consumer-available olfactory instigators, a designer must be aware of what kinds of things are not in their control, as it can help them learn where to focus their efforts. One simple approach is to use postmodern signifiers.

Feeling The Environment

What is Felt Through Our Feet

Even through shoes, socks, boots, and so on, one can tell a lot about the space they are in from how it feels to stand on it. One can feel the density, texture, solidity, material, and amount of friction of surfaces.

It’s a real challenge to be in a space without having some direct haptic feeling of the space. Usually, through our feet. Luckily, a VR user can feel the floor they are actually standing on, and see that it matches a floor in the VR environment.

Discrepancies such as small variations in floor height, slope, or shape, can indeed lower ones feeling of presence. That said, if the choice is an interesting environment or a perfectly flat and featureless landscape, I would go for the interesting environment 10 times out of 10. A little sound design can go a long way.

Attention to Foot Placement

How much focus do we need to give to where we are standing or placing our feet?

One might call it “breathing room”. Having the space to shift ones weight about is wildly different then having to make sure and precise steps.

Put someone on a slippery surface, even standing solid, balanced, and unmoving; they will still feel uneasy. Knowledge that the surface is slippery affects how they feel, and how they will move.

Other Direct Contact

We sit on chairs, we hold railings, lean on walls and banisters, and more. Such haptics tend to tell us more about a particular item then our perception of space, there are exceptions. Consider how, when you hold a railing, you can generally feel how long that railing is? Weird, right? It can give you a sense of how much stairway or walkway you have left. You can feel the vibrations traveling through the railing. Little cues like this inform us all the time. Slight give in walkways and boards.

Some walls sound different - hollow or solid, for example - when we knock on them. We can also often feel this difference, the difference in how the wall reacts, gives, and vibrates, when we touch it.

Of course, these haptic elements are incredibly important for communicating the mood or feeling of a space (A stairway railing can say a lot about a building!), but this page is only concerned with out perception of the environment as a whole.

Air Quality

What’s the current temperature?

Can you tell if you are indoors or outdoors by only the feeling of the air? What if there is a slight wind, or the smell of trees? What if it rained recently, or is about to rain? Can you feel that in the air? Yes!

You can also feel if it is currently raining, of course.

Is the room you are in air conditioned? Is it currently being air conditioned? Can you tell?

Could you tell, by the air alone, if you are in a closet or in a large room? Does your own exhaling breath dissipate or does it hang about, trapped in a small space? Is it whisked away instantly by an industrial air conditioner unit?

As far as air quality goes, how would you describe your current environment?

Is it hot, cold, hazy, muggy, stuffy, dusty, humid, clear, fresh, drafty, brisk, confined, musty, stagnant, stale, stifling, dry, arid, misty, balmy, acrid, dank, bitter, crisp, fragrant, or clammy?


Closely related to air quality is smell.

Direct Smells

Of course, many smells directly cue us in to our environment thanks to their source: flowers, a stew on a stove-top, a toilet, and so on.

Indirect Smells

Smells do not need to have an identifiable source. Many are more simply associated with an environment in general: wet grass, pollen, a dusty room, the artificial smell of cleaning chemicals one may find in a bathroom (unpleasant, but perhaps better than the alternative).

Generally these come from smells that are either sourced from all about the environment (the smell of wet grass), those that linger in the air (the smell of a lifelong tobacco smokers apartment), or those that are applied or left around an environment (paint, cleaning chemicals, bug spray, blood).

Our Own Smell

Much to the consternation of our roommates, we have all gotten quite good at ignoring the smell of ourselves. Frankly, I don’t really know what I smell like, and I disregard this when considering the environment.

If one is exceptionally pungent (perhaps wearing cologne), it is more noise that my nose must process and ignore in order to perceive the signal of the smells of the environment.

What are the exceptions? Can they inform us of the environment? Are there examples that are more universal than personal, shared by enough of the population? Sunscreen and a day at the beach, perhaps.