At a time when accusations of fake news are rampant, it might seem like our perceptions of reality have never been more ephemeral, but a thought-provoking project by interactive designer Danli Hu reminds us that reality has never been concrete. Made for Hu's graduate program in Design and Technology at New York's Parson's the New School, Touching the Void allows users to feel objects that aren't really there.
"Humans are visual animals; we rely on our eyes and believe the world is exactly like what we see. We think an object physically exists in our real world because we can perceive it with our eyes and feel it with our hands. Creating a virtual object, which is unseeable but provides physical sensations despite its invisibility, challenges people's definition about virtual and reality," explains Hu on her website.
Consisting of a pair of gloves and a pedestal that are both embedded with electronics, Touching the Void depicts virtual objects by vibrating when the user's fingers enter the space occupied by the object. "The data of user's finger position is tracked by a [sensor device] embedded in the pedestal, then fed to [a microcontroller] to activate the corresponding vibration motors beneath fingertips," explains Hu. "Guided by where the vibration happens, the audience will gradually understand the shape of the object and construct the image of it in their mind," adds a statement on her website. As the user tries to understand the form of the virtual object, they become a performer of sorts while those watching the interaction take place get a visual sense of the virtual object as well.
Along with ideas about perception and reality put forth by prominent 20th century thinkers, like Alan Watts and Werner Heisenberg, Hu says that the project was inspired by the parable of the blind men and an elephant. In the story, six blind men feel different parts of the same elephant and each describes the elephant in a different way. "Some of them say the elephant is like a great mud wall, whereas the others believe the elephant is like a rope or a fan. The story reveals that people may get a different version of the reality based on the information they perceive," Hu tells Creators.
The creation of an apparatus that gives sensory qualities to virtual objects is certainly an ambitious undertaking, and much like the blind men in the parable, Hu had to investigate different aspects of the project before putting together a fully formed work. "After several prototypes, I chose to use crafted foam as the material of the glove, and attached an elastic band on each finger. So if the glove is worn by a smaller hand, the elastic makes the glove tighter. If it is a bigger hand, then the elastic band will stretch to the longest length. Instead of using silicone wires, I changed the wire to conductive thread and stitched them on the glove. The rigidity of the glove was increased," she says.
Although the parable dates back to ancient India, Hu sees it as an accurate reflection of our contemporary relationship to the virtual world. "The virtual object exists in people's minds when it is touched by whomever is receiving the haptic sensation; it also takes on a presence in the space in another dimension, as an idea," explains Hu. "Therefore, the object exists in concept but not in form. It reconstructs the reality."
See more of Danli Hu's work on her website.