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  1. Our daily observations tell us that the delivery of social sentiments and emotions differs between strangers and romantic partners. This work explores how relationship status influences our delivery and perception of social touches and emotions, by evaluating the physics of contact interactions. In a study with human participants, strangers and romantically involved touchers delivered emotional messages to receivers’ forearms. Physical contact interactions were measured using a customized 3D tracking system. The results indicate that strangers and romantic receivers recognize emotional messages with similar accuracy, but with higher levels of valence and arousal between romantic partners. Further investigation into the contact interactions which underlie the higher levels of valence and arousal reveals that a toucher tunes their strategy with their romantic partner. For example, when stroking, romantic touchers use velocities preferential to C-tactile afferents, and maintain contact for longer durations with larger contact areas. Notwithstanding, while we show that relationship intimacy influences the deployment of touch strategies, such impact is relatively subtle compared to distinctions between gestures, emotional messages, and individual preferences. 
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    Free, publicly-accessible full text available July 1, 2024
  2. Across a plethora of social situations, we touch others in natural and intuitive ways to share thoughts and emotions, such as tapping to get one’s attention or caressing to soothe one’s anxiety. A deeper understanding of these human-to-human interactions will require, in part, the precise measurement of skin-to-skin physical contact. Among prior efforts, each measurement approach exhibits certain constraints, e.g., motion trackers do not capture the precise shape of skin surfaces, while pressure sensors impede skin-to-skin contact. In contrast, this work develops an interference-free 3D visual tracking system using a depth camera to measure the contact attributes between the bare hand of a toucher and the forearm of a receiver. The toucher’s hand is tracked as a posed and positioned mesh by fitting a hand model to detected 3D hand joints, whereas a receiver’s forearm is extracted as a 3D surface updated upon repeated skin contact. Based on a contact model involving point clouds, the spatiotemporal changes of hand-to-forearm contact are decomposed as six, high-resolution, time-series contact attributes, i.e., contact area, indentation depth, absolute velocity, and three orthogonal velocity components, together with contact duration. To examine the system’s capabilities and limitations, two types of experiments were performed. First, to evaluate its ability to discern human touches, one person delivered cued social messages, e.g., happiness, anger, sympathy, to another person using their preferred gestures. The results indicated that messages and gestures, as well as the identities of the touchers, were readily discerned from their contact attributes. Second, the system’s spatiotemporal accuracy was validated against measurements from independent devices, including an electromagnetic motion tracker, sensorized pressure mat, and laser displacement sensor. While validated here in the context of social communication, this system is extendable to human touch interactions such as maternal care of infants and massage therapy. 
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  3. Tactile acuity differs between individuals, likely a function of several interrelated factors. The extent of the impact of skin mechanics on individual differences is unclear. Herein, we investigate if differences in skin elasticity between individuals impact their ability to distinguish compliant spheres near limits of discriminability. After characterizing hyperelastic material properties of their skin in compression, the participants were asked to discriminate spheres varying in elasticity and curvature, which generate non-distinct cutaneous cues. Simultaneous biomechanical measurements were used to dissociate the relative contributions from skin mechanics and volitional movements in modulating individuals’ tactile sensitivity. The results indicate that, in passive touch, individuals with softer skin exhibit larger gross contact areas and higher perceptual acuity. In contrast, in active touch, where exploratory movements are behaviorally controlled, individuals with harder skin evoke relatively larger gross contact areas, which improve and compensate for deficits in their acuity as observed in passive touch. Indeed, these participants exhibit active control of their fingertip movements that improves their acuity, amidst the inherent constraints of their less elastic finger pad skin. 
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  4. Haith, Adrian M. (Ed.)
    Our sense of touch helps us encounter the richness of our natural world. Across a myriad of contexts and repetitions, we have learned to deploy certain exploratory movements in order to elicit perceptual cues that are salient and efficient. The task of identifying optimal exploration strategies and somatosensory cues that underlie our softness perception remains relevant and incomplete. Leveraging psychophysical evaluations combined with computational finite element modeling of skin contact mechanics, we investigate an illusion phenomenon in exploring softness; where small-compliant and large-stiff spheres are indiscriminable. By modulating contact interactions at the finger pad, we find this elasticity-curvature illusion is observable in passive touch, when the finger is constrained to be stationary and only cutaneous responses from mechanosensitive afferents are perceptible. However, these spheres become readily discriminable when explored volitionally with musculoskeletal proprioception available. We subsequently exploit this phenomenon to dissociate relative contributions from cutaneous and proprioceptive signals in encoding our percept of material softness. Our findings shed light on how we volitionally explore soft objects, i.e., by controlling surface contact force to optimally elicit and integrate proprioceptive inputs amidst indiscriminable cutaneous contact cues. Moreover, in passive touch, e.g., for touch-enabled displays grounded to the finger, we find those spheres are discriminable when rates of change in cutaneous contact are varied between the stimuli, to supplant proprioceptive feedback. 
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  5. Brushed stimuli are perceived as pleasant when stroked lightly on the skin surface of a touch receiver at certain velocities. While the relationship between brush velocity and pleasantness has been widely replicated, we do not understand how resultant skin movements – e.g., lateral stretch, stick-slip, normal indentation – drive us to form such judgments. In a series of psychophysical experiments, this work modulates skin movements by varying stimulus stiffness and employing various treatments. The stimuli include brushes of three levels of stiffness and an ungloved human finger. The skin’s friction is modulated via non-hazardous chemicals and washing protocols, and the skin’s thickness and lateral movement are modulated by thin sheets of adhesive film. The stimuli are hand-brushed at controlled forces and velocities. Human participants report perceived pleasantness per trial using ratio scaling. The results indicate that a brush’s stiffness influenced pleasantness more than any skin treatment. Surprisingly, varying the skin’s friction did not affect pleasantness. However, the application of a thin elastic film modulated pleasantness. Such barriers, though elastic and only 40 microns thick, inhibit the skin’s tangential movement and disperse normal force. The finding that thin films modulate affective interactions has implications for wearable sensors and actuation devices. 
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  6. Our perception of compliance is informed by multi-dimensional tactile cues. Compared with stationary cues at terminal contact, time-dependent cues may afford optimal efficiency, speed, and fidelity. In this work, we investigate strategies by which temporal cues may encode compliances by modulating our exploration time. Two potential perceptual strategies are considered, inspired by memory representations within and between explorations. For either strategy, we introduce a unique computational approach. First, a curve similarity analysis, of accumulating touch force between sequentially explored compliances, generates a minimum time for discrimination. Second, a Kalman filtering approach derives a recognition time from progressive integration of stiffness estimates over time within a single exploration. Human-subjects experiments are conducted for both single finger touch and pinch grasp. The results indicate that for either strategy, by employing a more natural pinch grasp, time-dependent cues afford greater efficiency by reducing the exploration time, especially for harder objects. Moreover, compared to single finger touch, pinch grasp improves discrimination rates in judging plum ripeness. The time-dependent strategies as defined here appear promising, and may tie with the time-scales over which we make perceptual judgments. 
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