How To Get Strangers To Touch You
Earlier this year we told you about a prototype camera called Touchy from artist Eric Siu. The idea was in the conceptual stage at the time and focused on a wearable camera helmet that effectively makes the user blind by placing shutters over their eyes. By touching someone for 10 seconds, the wearer can open the shutters, activate the camera, and take a picture.
While it may sound like an unusual way to interact with the world, the idea was to look at how the mechanics of a camera can be humanized, along with exploring how the internet and modern technology have created a virtual wall between people, replacing physical contact with the digital variety of “likes” and tweets and angry comments. Siu saw his camera as a way to readdress this balance, ensuring that people had to have physical contact in order for them to see the world around them.
The camera was not meant as a mass produced device, but instead a performance piece that forces people to interact with strangers, while confronting the formal personas we all wear. Siu has now turned the concept into a fully functioning camera—and is also hoping to expand the project to include a manga comic—which he’s been using for live performances around Japan, challenging social conventions, along with turning into some kind of pied piper whenever kids are near.
We fired off some questions to Siu to find out how the project has evolved and what challenges he faced in bringing Touchy to life.
The Creators Project: The last time we featured Touchy, it was still a conceptual prototype. What was the project realization process like?
Eric Siu: The realization was held back due to touch sensor research, but I didn’t want the conceptual development to slow down. Therefore, I decided to use a much simpler technology (completing the circuit with a transistor and low current voltage through human touch). With this technology it requires people to come into contact with one end of the circuit and then touch me, and that how’s the Touchy bulb was born—users (Toucha) hold the bulb and touch me. So the design and production of the bulb was the core process to finally make it work—the helmet was ready for taking photos quite a while ago. Not to wait for the touch sensor technology was a big decision!
Touch at Harajuku Kawaii 2012
How has Touchy changed or evolved since its conception? Are there any new components or developments?
The main developments are that the working prototype has been completed and the hardware is fully functional and I’ve begun performing live in Tokyo. I’ve performed at KAWAii Festival in Harajuku with Time Out Tokyo, People Design Institute (Touchy has become a social partner of this NPO aimed at bridging the gap between the handicapped and society) and will perform at TEDxKids this weekend. Also, the philosophy behind Touchy has been crystalized: Touchy’s role is to connect people offline, plus the storytelling idea (including the introduction of the character Margaret Toucha) was born.
As a performance act and a personal experience, can you describe what was it like to wander around Tokyo as Touchy before any contact with humans?
To be honest, I totally underestimated the effect of blindness. When I was alone wandering, I felt pretty helpless and couldn’t really do much to help myself. I lost all sensory information around me, so I could walk a bit more carefully, but I could still end up hitting something. However, it was a very contradictory experience because although I was isolated, I knew that I was drawing a lot of attention with a helmet like this. I couldn’t help but imagine the faces of people looking at me and what they must be thinking. It felt like being under a spot light, but the “light” is dark.
Touchy at Akihabara
Touching isn’t something you would normally do to strangers. How did the Japanese public respond to Touchy in the beginning?And what happened after?
The responses varied. Mostly they acted shy (sometimes scared). Usually they were hesitant at the beginning, but the opening of the shutters and the revealing of the eyes were a great ice breaker. Once that happens, they start to accept it and interact with me. However, they would only perform a limited level of contact—touching a hand or arm, I had to suggest to them to touch different parts of me like my cheek or nose. Sometimes I would touch them in return to ease their hesitation, then it would become fun. But kids are definitely an exception, they are super creative!
You also created comics and music based on the concept and character for Touchy—do you have examples? How do you plan to use these side-features in the future?
There are some conceptual elements of the project which cannot be expressed by seeing the camera or even by interacting with it. There are some messages or concerns which might be better expressed through storytelling and comics, which is one of the best ways to talk about a character like Touchy. Live performance is like social research which obtains elements that can be further expressed through different media. Also, it’s difficult to scale the project through solely live performances, because they are strictly limited to particular time and physical space. Below is a rough story plan and character setup:
Touchy and Margaret Toucha are characters on their own. We hope to build on the Margaret and Touchy story and possibly create a manga. Meanwhile in real-life, we are planning to have Margaret (my project partner Asia Skubisz) take Touchy to various places, show him the world they way she sees it, and do photos/video reports from these escapades. Among the sunny/funny and puffy travels, Margaret will bring Touchy to the places that indicate certain social issues (so we plan to gain mass public attention through talking about enjoyable stuff and then use this position to talk about meaningful/serious stuff).
Touchy and Margaret Toucha
Touchy is an exceptionally smart, but excessively shy boy. Desperately missing human contact, the boy has always been jealous of the life of a camera. “People smile at it, wear their cutest clothes in front of it, show the camera the most delicious dishes and beautiful sceneries. Cameras can easily meet people and share enjoyable moments together,” he thought. This jealousy led him to devise a “human camera.” When worn, the camera’s shutters covering the eyes blind the boy. Only human touch, which activates the opening of the shutters, can enable his vision. Whenever a human touch is maintained for 10 seconds, the camera takes a picture to capture the meaningful moment of Touchy’s interaction with another person.
Margaret is a relentless world explorer, an adventure addict, an “all over the place” kind of girl. Curiosity-driven and full of unconventional ideas, she keeps herself constantly occupied. Discovering the world by herself, Margaret realizes that she needs someone by her side to make her escapades truly meaningful. One day Margaret meets Touchy and they immediately become best friends. Margaret shows Touchy the world by taking him to her favorite places. She is happy to introduce Touchy to the wonders of this planet. Touchy relies on Margaret’s experience, for a life of the most loved and taken care of human camera in the history of human cameras!
You mentioned to Julia [The Creators Project Global Editor] in Tokyo that you want to use Touchy as “assistive tech.” For example, to help elderly or disabled people become more socialized if they have difficulty engaging with the outside world. Can you tell us a bit about your research involved to achieve this, and what your future hopes are for Touchy?
Considering the camera itself is a known social device, I want to employ its capability for Touchy to let it become a social healing device. I believe that Touchy can not only be used for healing the wearer, but also people around Touchy, which is an important agent that empowers people wearing it. This is something that some people miss in our society, especially the elderly and disabled. By hanging out with Touchy you can help someone, and easily generate interesting conversations with others. This can help enhance the process of assimilation of people into society. Imagine also if a parent and their kid have a communication problem, what if the father came up to the kid wearing Touchy?