Recreating Touch: Memory & Shared Experiences

Made by Paggy Zhu

Exploring the idea of recreating the memory of an object digitally as a trigger to recall an experience, and sharing experiences through sending the touch of an object.

Created: February 1st, 2018



Being apart from the people you love could be difficult, even as the internet allows us to see and hear each other in real time, part of the experience is lost after traveling a thousand miles. 

The touch of an object evokes a memory. The very first memories we have were tactile, and so often we remember an experience by touch without realizing. People often speak of wanting to take a piece of a place, or a piece of a person, with them. Through the recreation of an object central to a memory, accessing it later or sharing with another person, a digital device becomes a physical memento, able to be transported anywhere and re-experienced regardless of context. By sharing a tactile experience with someone else, two people are drawn closer. This project aims to enhance the sharing of experience by providing the aspect of touch.

By limiting the number of objects stored on the device, pieces of digitalized objects could be curated to retain only those most important. 



In searching for case studies to support this project, I came across a project for Alzheimer's disease patients and elderly people called "memory box". The idea is that by putting in a box objects from the past with a rich tactile experience, the patients could be prompted to reminisce about their past, and enjoy the moment that they could reach back to. This is a really simple but powerful project that touches on the emotional and neurological aspects of tactile memory.

When I looked further into the neurological side of tactile memory, I found the physical proof of tactile experiences capturing memory. The C-tactile afferents are in control of the emotional part of our sense of touch, they convey the context surrounding that touch instead of the factual information about the object of touch. Research have shown that repeatedly touching the contours of something increases the level of accuracy in recalling shapes. In rare cases, people could be "touch-blind" and not be able to distinguish between the contexts of touch. And most importantly, it's something that one loses as one ages. 


The technology for digitally capturing and recreating objects is growing. Devices are becoming smaller and faster, more easily available to the public. The smallest 3D scanner is hand held, and various companies are trying to recreate tactile experiences on touch screens. People are yearning to add touch to the virtual world, hoping that it would further resemble the physical world. This project envisions that eventually a wearable/portable device would be developed, one that not only has scanning capabilities, but could also recreate texture and materiality of an object through haptic technologies. 

Experience Haptics
Experience Haptics
Linda Quach -

Although these technologies are rapidly developing, few have thought of ways to combine them and augment our memory. Most of these technologies are currently being developed for the game design industry, bring the virtual world to the physical world. It's an exciting prospect that one day this technology could be used to surpass spatial limits, allowing people to physically exist together while apart.

I first looked to my professional training in 3D modeling for answers. 3D printing is now available in many materials other than plastic, people 3D print wood, metal and even concrete. It's not hard to imagine that one day we could print textures that are realistic to the human brain. However, waiting for a scanned model to print could take hours, therefore it was not a valid prototyping idea for the final envisioned product. I then looked to haptic technology, VR gloves, and generally the idea that we don't have to be actually touching a material for our brains to think we are. Through research on VR gloves, I decided that to make the brain believe that it's experiencing another context, there needs to be a physical representation of entering another environment. 


This project deals with similar issue of playing back a tactile memory, but it's more focused on personal reflection than the shared experience created. Other projects have explored the ideas of recording tactile experiences. 



To represent an experience, I had to look at the items surrounding me to determine which items and which textures held the most memory. In my search, I first looked at a palette of materials that could evoke memory, and tried to find an item important to me of that material to test the theory. 


I started with 11 swatches of different materials and a couple of items that hold a memory, and wrote down the feelings and a memory each one gave me. This was an exercise not only in testing the theory that tactile experience would evoke memory, but also in determining which textures most often encode memory. 

These items include a pair of gloves gifted to me, a scrap of wood that I painted on in studio, a book dating back to 1889 that I got on a trip, a sweater that I bought my first winter in Pittsburgh, and sand paper that signifies the rocks on a mountain. Each of these items were chosen because they tell a story of the past.


These personal items were then matched to a palette that represents them for the prototyping process.



To prototype an object that uses technology not yet existent, I had to simplify the object to an experience. I defined the input as a piece of material that evokes memory, and the output as a recreation of that experience in tactile form. Using a limited palette of materials for demonstration, it was possible for me to embed in each personal item an RFID tag, which is then read by the reader to manipulate the presentation of that same material in the receiving device. 


The "scanning" device is an Arduino Uno connected to an RFID-RC522 reader, powered by 4 1.5V AA batteries. Eventually the batteries proved to be unreliable, and during the demo a USB power source was used. 


The device is then connected to a servo motor, which turns a disk of swatches that would be "generated" to the receiving device.


Below is the code used to assign 5 distinct items an angle on the servo motor, and an initializing position. 

#include <RFID.h>

* Read a card using a mfrc522 reader on your SPI interface
* Pin layout should be as follows (on Arduino Uno):
* MOSI: Pin 11 / ICSP-4
* MISO: Pin 12 / ICSP-1
* SCK: Pin 13 / ISCP-3
* SS/SDA: Pin 10
* RST: Pin 9

#include <SPI.h>
#include <RFID.h>
#include <Servo.h>

#define SS_PIN 10
#define RST_PIN 9

Servo myservo;  // create servo object to control a servo


int led = 7;
int power = 8; 
int serNum[5];
int cards[][5] = {

int servoAngle = 0;

int angle1 = 30;
int angle2 = 60;
int angle3 = 90;
int angle4 = 120;
int angle5 = 150;
int angle6 = 180;

bool access = false;

void setup(){

    myservo.attach(3);  // attaches the servo on pin 9 to the servo object


    pinMode(led, OUTPUT);

    digitalWrite(led, LOW);

void check(){
            Serial.print(" ");
            Serial.print(" ");
            Serial.print(" ");
            Serial.print(" ");
              for(int i = 0; i < sizeof(rfid.serNum); i++ ){
                  if(rfid.serNum[i] == cards[0][i]) {
                     servoAngle = angle1;
                  } else if (rfid.serNum[i] == cards[1][i]){
                     servoAngle = angle2;
                  } else if (rfid.serNum[i] == cards[2][i]){
                     servoAngle = angle3;
                  } else if (rfid.serNum[i] == cards[3][i]){
                     servoAngle = angle4;
                  } else if (rfid.serNum[i] == cards[4][i]){
                     servoAngle = angle5;
                  } else if (rfid.serNum[i] == cards[5][i]){
                     servoAngle = angle6;
                  } else if (rfid.serNum[i] == cards[6][i]){
                     servoAngle = 0;
                  } else {
void loop(){
Click to Expand
RFID reader test
Paggy Zhu -

Final product



Are we supposed to be able to share touch even if the technology becomes available? Or are we supposed to cherish physical memories as they are, and distinguish them from digital ones? Digital memories seems so easy to fade, it's hard to say whether touch, once digitalized, would face the same fate as the photo album that no one looks at on their phone anymore. Capturing memory and having it there without constantly trying to remember seems to be the norm, but does it mean the memory is lost? Or is it just waiting for a chance to be rediscovered? 

When we could share touch digitally, is there any meaning to being together physically anymore?

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48-528 Responsive Mobile Environments

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The theme for 2018 will be the exploration of human memory and how digital and connected technology can support, augment, enhance, effect and alter the ways in which we remember, recount and reflec...more


Exploring the idea of recreating the memory of an object digitally as a trigger to recall an experience, and sharing experiences through sending the touch of an object.