“They cannot distinguish the tone of the voice or, without assistance, go up and down the gamut of tones that gives significance to words; nor can they watch the expression of the speaker’s face, and a look is often the very soul of what one says.”
- Helen Keller
This project is inspired by the notion of expressions and emotions embedded a conversation, and how it defines one’s personality. Drawing from Helen’s account of her early childhood and learning process, this installation explores a tactile language to communicate various emotions that is portrayed in her autobiography.
Interestingly, humans communicate emotions through the sense of touch. The relationship of the sense of touch to communicate emotional state is observed in language, for example the English word “feeling”. A large number of adjectives and verbs are used to indicate tactile sensation as well as an emotional state or response. In the field of human computer interaction, emoticons, or visual icons that metaphorically represent emotional states, have been widely used in non-verbal modalities, such as text messaging. This installation attempts to transfer this visual representation of emotional state, using adjectives and verbs, to a tactile one in order to communicate instances from Helen Keller’s early childhood.
Prior to the design process, we reviewed literature about Helen Keller’s early childhood which was followed by a field trip to the University of Michigan - Museum of Art, and the Materials exhibition at the Duderstadt Center. Drawing from these observations, we conducted a brainstorming session and generated several sketching alternatives. Each of us voted for our top three preferred ideas and then shortlisted the top two ideas with highest votes for further detailing.
Based on Russell’s circumplex model of affect, several emotions were selected and presented to users. They were asked about how they would describe these emotions to someone who is vision and hearing impaired, and based on their responses and feedback eight distinct emotions were selected.
A key take-away from this design process is the idea generation phase in which several sketching alternatives were generated, and as the process progressed, the ideas got better and more interesting, and we were able to build on top of other’s ideas to generate new ideas.
Some emotions directly translated to how the textures felt, and the emotions that they elicit from the observers were a close match. Other textures required a context either through audio or textual information about the corresponding event, in order to aid the process of identifying the emotion. Shape of the texture had little or no impact in identifying the emotion. In conclusion, the idea behind this installation was to provide a tactile experience, an awareness to different textures, identify the underlying message that is embedded in these textures and get a firsthand experience of how Helen Keller perceived information through touch.