Touching Holograms: Reaching Out for the Feel of Visual Media

Thomas Conner and I will be presenting at the ICA Reimagining Communication pre-conference on May 25th.


Reimagining communication asks us to consider myriad ways emerging technologies, crossdisciplinary fertilization, and reconfigured intellectual spheres produce “epistemic transgressions and emergent methodologies.” In this paper, we interrogate the development of two technologies that have started to converge, which disrupt notions of visuality, touch, and communication – haptics and holograms.

Whether viewing holograms (3D images made from diffractive optics) or “holograms” (digital projections), spectators often experience a common impulse: the urge to reach out and touch the image. This is the defining gesture of holography, and it inevitably fails — holograms, as transparent, spectral imagery, cannot be touched. That is, the images are unreachable; their veiled apparatuses (be they hologram plates or digital projectors) can, of course, be handled. Recent research & development, however, challenges this dual aspect of digital holography by adding haptic experience to the encounter. Prototype systems have emerged utilizing

ultrasound, lasers, and jets of air in coordination with the production of the imagery, so that a reaching spectator finally does encounter something to touch. The addition of this sensory input to the encounter changes the nature and social function of the mediated interaction. Considering the way these technologies push us to reimagine visual, auditory, and haptic communication, we center theories from visual studies (Marks, 2002; Mitchell, 2005) and haptic media studies (Parisi & Archer, 2017) and propose thinking together about the following wonderings:

1.     What is being represented tactility, sonically, and visually by a haptic hologram and how does that impact our encounter with it?

2.     How could haptic holograms decenter common notions of touch communication and visual communication? 

3.     How do haptic holograms relate to the history of images? (Indeed, are they still images?)

4.     What methodologies could we develop to examine and address the challenges of technologies like haptic holograms?


Marks, L. (2002) Touch: Sensuous Theory and Multisensory Media. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press

Mitchell, W.J.T. (2005) There are no visual media. Journal of Visual Culture 4(2): 257 – 266.

Parisi, D. & Archer, J. (2017) Making touch analog: The prospects and perils of a haptic media studies. New Media and Society, 19(10), 1523 – 1540.

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