Can technology replace our tactile experience with products?

Confined life during lockdown reduces our sensory stimulations: our screens are suddenly an opening to the world; they allow us to feel the outside world and in particular to "touch" it. 

We do our shopping, meet our friends and even take gym classes online without being able to directly touch the elements that evolve in this virtual environment. 

But is it possible to "touch" through an interface? This is the question posed in our book, ‘Haptic Sensation and Consumer Behaviour’ in which we explore the influence of tactile stimulation in physical and online environments.

We perceive our environment through our senses: the growth of sensorial marketing shows that in a consumption context it is necessary to work on all perceptions to improve the perception of offers. 

Yet consumer behavior is quickly evolving in virtual environments. Originally, technology exclusively mobilized the sense of sight, which drastically limited the sensory experience. However the technologies that are currently under development increasingly enable the reproduction of sensations that are produced within a physical environment. For example, 4DX technology cinema offers an immersive experience to spectators, stimulating all the senses so that viewers can feel as if they are there within the story itself.

The development of tactile interfaces such as tablets and smartphones has made touch a central sense for understanding information delivered over the Internet. Online navigation is done by touch and, although it is not directly related to what is displayed on the screen, research shows that the simple fact of using a touch interface and thus stimulating the sense of touch with the interface, changes the perception that Internet users have of the product presented. 

Beyond this simple tactile stimulation effect, the technological possibilities will soon allow the general public to feel different sensations depending on the content visualized on the screen: the sensation produced by the interface may change depending on what is presented (for example a warm screen in the place representing a sun). Could these possibilities be an opportunity for online retailers?

In finding the answer to this question we must investigate whether Internet users want to live the same sensory experiences in virtual environments as they would in a physical environment. For example, tactile rendering solutions will make it possible to reproduce the sensation of the skin of a pineapple, but is this going to solve the problem of the lack of product handling that affects distance selling? 

While the benefit of such solutions for people deprived of interaction with the outside world (something most of us experienced during the lockdown) seems assured, it is not as certain that this will be the case in conditions without deprivation of physical interactions. Our book presents research results concerning the interest of making a tactile stimulation identical to that which would be produced by physical interaction with an object presented on a screen or, on the contrary, of proposing a tactile experience with the interface disconnected from the object presented on the screen. 

Even when it comes to touch, the role of virtual environments can be twofold: to imitate the physical environment to replace it (for example to evaluate and buy a product online rather than going to a store) or to produce a totally original online experience rooted in hedonism (for example to feel the symptoms of a disease I have not contracted in order to facilitate its prevention).

With the evolution of technologies and the consequences of the limitation of interactions with the outside world, the development of haptic touch in online environments is highly topical, and our book Haptic Sensation and Consumer Behaviour offers some thoughts on its future evolution.

Margot Racat & Sonia Capelli's book Haptic Sensation and Consumer Behaviour is available to buy now on