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Can feelings transcend language?

In the oncoming post-global age, people will be asked to accept the wide variety of values found all around the world. Yet these divides of nationality, ethnicity, gender, or generation may be impossible to cross through language alone. Here we focus on “sensitivity (KANSEI)” in looking at the potential for achieving mutual understanding around the globe.

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Can feelings transcend language? At the Think Human Exhibition, the sensitivity project team demonstrated an experiment using touch, a human sense with a particularly powerful association with emotion. Can we use our senses to overcome barriers of nationality, race, and gender that are so important in a post-globalization era? The project team conducted this experiment to show the potential for nonverbal communication to bring people closer and promote understanding.

What is conveyed when we touch the heart?

In his Heartbeat Picnic workshops, Junji Watanabe of NTT Communication Science Laboratories uses a device that converts heartbeats picked up with a stethoscope into vibrations. Taking a hint from that device, the project team created a system more specialized at conveying emotion. Linked to a short video drama that viewers watch in booths, the system conveys vibrations representing the female protagonist’s heartbeat through heart-shaped devices on which viewers place their hands.

The drama begins with the protagonist making a mistake at work and hurrying to catch a taxi. She unintentionally starts to board a taxi that another man was trying to stop, leading to an argument. They learn that they are headed in the same direction, however, and so decide to share the ride. The woman’s heart rate, which had been racing during the argument, starts to slow as she calms down in the quiet of the taxi. The man, a photographer, is looking at photographs on his computer. The woman glances over at what he is doing, and he asks if she likes photography. A sudden rise in her heart rate suggests a change in attitude toward this man with whom she is sharing a ride only by chance. They soon arrive at the man’s destination, and both get out of the taxi. The driver asks the woman if she will continue on, but after a brief hesitation she says she’s decided to get off here, and the drama ends.

The woman shows little change in facial expression, but the rise and fall of her heart rate reveals the change in her emotional state that accompanies each change of scene.

“Seeing and hearing are senses we use to perceive distant objects,” Watanabe says, “but we use touch to directly experience things that we are in physical contact with. It’s a sense that evokes a strong emotional response.”

Watanabe’s talk also introduced his Heartbeat Picnic project. He described the body as our “most familiar ‘other,’” one that continues to respond to the environment even when we are not conscious of it. We live with bodily responses that we cannot completely control with our will. Our imagination regarding this subconscious aspect within all of us is what Watanabe defines as “sensitivity (kansei).”

“I think sensitivity (kansei) is related to our acceptance of the latent. We can experience a rapid increase in heart rate even without changing our facial expression. We can rephrase this as imagination regarding the stories behind things. My own field of study focuses on touch, and I believe there are powers of the imagination that are broadened by direct contact rather than language.”

The sensitivity project team used a textile formed from Teijin-manufactured nanofibers as a surfacing material to cover a heart-shaped device for experiencing heartbeats.

The project team paid special attention to the texture of the cloth used to cover the heart-shaped device that was held when watching the drama, due to the need for a delicate sense of touch.

“Instead of a keyboard and mouse,” Watanabe says, “today we can use voice, touch gestures, and various other actions to provide input to computers, and I believe that materials for touching will play a key part in future computer interfaces.”

Watanabe describes the significant possibilities present in Teijin’s accumulated knowledge related to materials.

In the future there will be continued progress in technologies related to the transmission of sensitivity (kansei), and it likely won’t be long before kansei becomes a tool for communicating various things on an equal footing with—or even surpassing—language. This project demonstrated the potential importance of touch in future methods for communication, and touch will likely become increasingly important with time. We expect that not just touch, but other forms of kansei will allow us more enriching communications. Teijin’s mission is to continually pursue such possibilities, because the pursuit of the potential for kansei is also the pursuit of the potential for humanity.

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