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Interactions With a Skin-Like Interface

Delhi: water tap

I came across this tap attached to a water barrel during our getting-to-know-how-a-city-wakes-up walk around Old Delhi. I’ve been trying to figure out whether the design deliberately imitates the shape of male genitalia (I know it’s small in the photo but, um, click to enlarge). The function – passing water maps well enough to the body, but the colour is not an accurate reflection of local skin pigmentation and I guess the design misses the opportunity to introduce modality. But the resemblance is there.

User interface designers like to tap into what their users already know – and in this vein the desktop metaphor relies on the basic assumption that users know that objects can be placed on and moved around a desktop. In an increasingly globalize world is there domain knowledge that is universally known across cultures, ages, and genders? What are the things that you have spent the most time with in your life? What has been there through thick and thin, good times and bad, and has been there in your most intimate moments?

High on this list is your body or at least the parts that you can easily see such as the back of your hands, or easily touched such as your shoulders, chest, front of legs, bum, face and yes genitalia. (There’s also the stuff inside you that you feel – anything from the pressure of a full bladder to aching limbs but that’s a discussion for another day). What if skin-like materials were just another tool in the designer’s toolbox? Today we have mass-produce able pleather. With a desire to rebuild wounded soldiers and in particular treat burn victims leading research into growing body parts and skin is mass produced skin-like materials really that far behind?

Your first reaction is probably gentle, chiding revulsion – triggering of thoughts about eXistenZ and looking again at the photo you’re thinking that the tap design (and this post) is just plain tacky. But pause and think. Given a life-time of getting to know and interaction with your own body and the knowledge of your shapes, scars, textures, preferences is there something there that can be tapped to design more optimal products? What I’m not proposing is cyborgs or human like robots. But put simply, what if your 12th generation iPod casing felt like, looked and behaved like your own skin? Supple, warm, tender. How would it respond to gentle squeezes, flexes, stroking, a tug or a pinch? What kind of interaction would play or stop a song? If you wanted to customised it would it be with a piercing? Or a tattoo?

If realistic skin was widely available it wouldnt take long before it was wrapped around body-part-like shapes. What would the inherent characteristics of those body shapes be? What functions could map to tapping a ‘shoulder’? Rubbing a ‘foot’? Nudging an ‘elbow’? How would interactions differ depending on the age, gender and cultural background of the interactor? How would interaction preferences differ for the same? I may have a weak grip and rough flaky skin but that doesn’t mean I just want to interact with skin-like products that feel the same as me.

And how would and should our skin-like products wear and tear? Would they age? Succumb to sun burn? Require a shave? Treatment for lice? End up with cancer? Can they be restored with the liberal application of aloe or would it require something more drastic such as botox or a nip and a tuck?

Choices, choices.