The Fusion of Digital and Tactile

The Fusion of Digital and Tactile

by Bruce Sachs

Now that school’s out, many families will be taking summer vacations, including an estimated 17 million people planning to visit the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World. Recently, Disney made the news with their latest theme park innovation, MagicBands. “The all-purpose bands substitute for the tickets you would otherwise use to get into the park. They can unlock a door at a Disney hotel. You can tap them to buy concessions or souvenirs…, order photos, and yes take the place of a FastPass to an attraction….”

While the MagicBands are innovative, I discovered that The Walt Disney Company’s research isn’t focused solely on new ways to improve your park experience. Disney Research launched in 2008 as an informal network of research labs that collaborate closely with Carnegie Mellon University and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zürich (ETH). 

Their work focuses on five areas including motion graphics, robotics, and behavioral sciences. Engaging videos on the Disney Research site show their prototypes in action; I was drawn to the area of Human-Computer Interaction. Beyond our daily desktop computer and mobile phone usage, we are constantly connecting with numerous digital objects. Disney Research is pushing the limits of those interactions.


Touché was the first project that caught my attention. Fast Company’s 2013 100 Most Creative People in Business list features Ivan Poupyrev, senior research scientist for Touché. This revolutionary new technology detects touch, movement and complex interactions between humans and objects. The possibilities are endless and propel touch-sensing technology beyond the standard touch-screen. With Touché, anything can turned into an interactive digital interface, including tabletops, the human body, liquids and plants. This five minute video below explains it best by showing the technology in action.

Botanicus Interacticus: Interactive Plant Technology

An extension of the Touché project, Botanicus Interacticus turns household plants into remote controls providing the ability to adjust the volume of your music or even turn your plants into digital wind chimes. The project reminds me of a video I’d seen before where vegetables were connected to a keyboard and the electrical impulses created music. Botanicus Interacticus takes it even further. It detects touch gestures around the plant and captures the movement of individual leaves. “Botanicus Interacticus technology can be used to design highly interactive responsive environments based on plants, developing new forms of organic, living interaction devices as well as creating organic ambient and pervasive interfaces.” Plants provide such a unique interface that I’m not sure how it can be extended, but the prototype looks beautiful.

Tesla Touch and Revel

Touch is one of our most valued senses and these two related projects deal with the ability to use that sense to feel virtual elements. Based in the science of electrovibration, electrostatic energy on a flat object allows the user to perceive virtual friction or texture. The technology allows the user to feel the texture and dimension of digital objects. For example, images of rocks would feel rough and pictures of  kittens would feel soft and fluffy. The Disney Research site refers to this as “haptic illusions.” This dynamic technology can be applied to touchscreens, but also to everyday objects and surfaces such as walls, furniture or human skin.

In the past 20 years, a huge shift from print to digital communication has taken place. Are these digital interactions the next phase? They present amazing opportunities for unique new experiences. I see lots of possibility for future graphic designers to implement these innovations into projects. Digital books could feel like their physical paper counterparts. Printed books could have interactive digital elements. You might be able to feel the texture of fabric in a digital catalog. You could even touch a digital representation of an artifact in a museum exhibit.

I’m intrigued by how these new technologies fuse the digital and tangible worlds, and I can’t wait to see these unfold in the future.