Skip to main content

Design guidelines for recognisable digital social touch from soft robotic haptic technologies

November 2023 – October 2025

This project aims to produce the first set of design guidelines for developing digital social touch-haptic stimuli generated by technology that is capable of communicating social content. It aims to engage an experience-driven paradigm to study the building blocks of a digital social touch that is sensorially precise, socially recognisable and validated in a naturalistic environment, resulting in its intended social content being successfully recognised by the human recipient. It will register social touch’s experiential and situational qualities in design terms and according to technical and numerical parameters that can be employed by the wider haptic design community, including computer scientists, roboticists and product designers. It will employ soft robotic actuators for their sensorially rich potential.

Social touch is the most effective form of non-verbal communication, commonly used for greeting, reassurance, building a sense of togetherness, and conveying affection. The growing use of touch-enabled agents and robots for healthcare, teaching, and applications for telepresence calls for convincing digital touch that are capable of communicating social content. However, there are no existing guidelines for designing digital social touch. In real life, experiential factors such as the appearance and texture of the touch actuator material, contextual factors such as how and when the touch is introduced, where it is positioned on the body, and cultural and social backgrounds define how the human recipient perceives touch. However, these factors have been mostly excluded when designing digital social touch within the technical community due to the limitation of a task-oriented design paradigm and the lack of access to tools and methods to engage the experiential qualities of social touch. This project will take several steps to address this gap and produce a design guide, a demonstratable prototype, and an open dataset.

About the Digital Futures Postdoc Fellow
Caroline Yan Zheng is a designer and researcher who works on creating embedded, tangible interfaces using soft robotics that enable emotionally rich experiences, with a PhD from the Royal College of Art UK. Her past work included developing an affect-, material-, and interaction-led (AMI-led) design framework to guide the form-giving process for affect-enabling interactive artefacts. Specifically, combining findings from neuroscience on comforting touch (CT-optimal touch) and the unique sensory qualities of tactile soft robotics, she developed and validated a wearable device (S-CAT) that simulates a gentle stroking touch. She was an awardee of the MedTech SuperConnector programme in the UK for translating soft robotic haptic technology into healthcare applications and a co-investigator in the Cancer Research UK-funded project ‘Improving care through soft robotic tactile intervention – towards a smarter compassionate experience in cancer treatment (SOFTLI)’ (2019-2021). She believes that technologies that afford physical experience are the next wave of our digital futures. For this vision, she is also a passionate community builder. She has initiated and co-organised several international workshops on affective HRI and has guest edited a Special Issue on ‘Designing the robot body: critical perspectives on affective embodied interaction’, published in the Journal of Transactions in Human-Robot Interaction (THRI).

Main supervisor
Madeline Balaam, Professor, Division of Media Technology and Interaction Design, KTH

Anna Ståhl, Senior Researcher, Digital Systems, RISE


Caroline Yan Zheng

Digital Futures Postdoctoral Fellow, Postdoc project: Design guidelines for recognisable digital social touch from soft robotic haptic technologies
Picture of Madeline Balaam

Madeline Balaam

Associate Professor, Division of Media Technology and Interaction Designs at KTH, Co-PI: Mid-sized Seated Haptic Interactions for Autonomous Vehicles, Main supervisor: Technology Mediated Collective Caring through Menstrual and Reproductive Journeys, Former Co-supervisor: Relational Aspects of Care in Intimate Digital Health Technologies, Former Co-PI: Layering Trust in Intimate Digital Health Technologies, Digital Futures Faculty

+46 8 790 66 27
Picture of Anna Ståhl

Anna Ståhl

Senior researcher, PhD, Connected Intelligence, Digital Systems at RISE, PI of project Mid-sized Seated Haptic Interactions for Autonomous Vehicles, Digital Futures Faculty

+46 10 228 43 51