#Haplós: CogNovo Project 8

Vibration for body awareness

Haplós was my PhD project at CogNovo, an interdisciplinary training program in creativity and cognition at Plymouth University. It investigated how vibrotactile stimuli can be used to create a technology-mediated somatic learning experience, and explored how the Feldenkrais Method and cognate neuroscience research can be applied to technology design. The research contributes to cognitive science and embodied philosophy by advancing a neuroscientific understanding of vibrotactile somaesthetics, a novel extension of somaesthetic philosophy. Supported by somaesthetic philosophy, soma-based design theories, and a critical acknowledgement of the socially-inflected body, the research develops a systematic method grounded in first- and third-person accounts of embodied experience to inform the creation and evaluation of design of Haplós, a wearable, user-customisable, remote-controlled technology that plays methodically composed vibrotactile patterns on the skin in order to facilitate body awareness—the major outcome of this research and a significant contribution to soma-based creative work. The research also contributes to design theory and somatic practice by developing the notion of a somatic learning affordance, which emerged during course of the research and which describes the capacity of a material object to facilitate somatic learning and body awareness. Body awareness is an important issue because it can help with pain management, trauma recovery, improving physical mobility and stability, improving self-perception and identity-formation, influencing mental awareness, and facilitating general wellbeing.

In addition, two interdisciplinary collaborations involving Haplós contribute to additional fields and disciplines. In partnership with experimental psychologists, Haplós was used in a randomised controlled study that contributes to cognitive psychology by showing that vibrotactile compositions can reduce, with statistical significance, intrusive food-related thoughts. The basis for this research stems from the Elaborated Intrusion theory of desire, which suggests that the Haplos device may interfere with the cycle of metal elaboration involved in the desire of substances such as chocolate. It is worth nothing that in this theory, substance addiction is an exaggerated form of craving.

A hack based on Haplós won 1st place out of 11 projects at Hack the Brain, a hackathon in Amsterdam organised by industry, arts, and science institutions. You can read more about it here. Haplós was also used in RE/ME, a body awareness tool initially based on the Haplós technology and subsequently developed with CogNovo fellows Agi Haines and Jack Fletcher, and independent composer Sean Clarke. It was selected for the award out of approximately 25 other teams that were formed during a series of EU-funded events called Hack the Brain held in 2016 and 2017. RE/ME uses carefully designed patterns of touch and sound to positively influence the perception of your own body by making you feel more whole. However, it can be further used to transform your experience of your body’s size and shape in imaginative and novel ways. RE/ME was one of five projects pitched at Art, Science & Technology Collaborations in Europe, a symposium on how the arts can be a catalyst for innovations that seek to address today’s challenges, and won the top prize: a funded opportunity to allow further testing and development at DART 17, a technology incubator in San Francisco.

As such it has potential applicability and extensibility to a variety of issues related to wellbeing other than body awareness and intrusive thoughts. For instance, the Haplós technology can potentially help with hemiplegia and other sensorimotor deficits due to strokes, particularly because of the ability of vibrotactile stimuli to affect muscular tonus and elicit illusory perception of movement. The technology also has potential for enhancing remote personal communication and intimacy. Conveying presence and intimacy across the distance is important particularly because economic pressures have resulted in economic migrants and created distributed families who rely on electronic communication systems as their only means of contact for long periods of time. The lack of physical intimacy within this diasporic group is thought to be the related to accompanying social and health problems. Being able to convey touch across distance in a comforting manner, for instance, might contribute to bridging this gap. Another area in which remote technologies for conveying somatic presence are relevant are online communities of practice, such as learners in open, distance, and e-learning (ODeL), which represent a growing proportion of Filipino learners. In ODeL environments, the lack of social, teaching, and other forms of presence of fellow students and instructors can negatively impact learning experiences. Further research could explore whether a remote somatic presence or intimacy might be provided by the Haplos vibrotactile system in tandem with more conventional electronic text and video communication systems to enrich social closeness between physically separated communities and families. Tactile interactions have been explored for enhancing remote interpersonal interactions, some of which use vibrotactile stimuli, such as those delivered by Haplos, but few consider the role of the whole body, and none have been successfully commercialized. However, commercial success of wearable vibrotactile technology for other uses, such as posture correction, indicates market readiness for new technology-based aids for well-being.

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