Out of Context

Digitizing Human Perception


Our senses are closely intertwined with textiles. Color, sound, touch, feel, and in some cases, smell, are all part of the judgments we make about fabrics. It is ingrained in us, from home quilter to big time production manager, to see and touch the fabrics we buy. That simple yet complex truth is at the heart of the challenges involved with selling of textiles remotely, i.e., over the internet.

But what if the human perception of a textile could be measured and digitized and put into a searchable database? Designers, developers and factories could search by the modality of a fabric’s hand and instead of fishing for material with a big net, with lots of swatches and freight and waste, they could look for fabrics that match a specific hand-feel profile. What if we could search for fabrics by what they feel like?

German testing equipment manufacturer, emtec Electronic GmbH, takes a step towards that future with its Tactile Sensation Analyzer (TSA). The mission is simply stated in the company’s brochure: “Traditionally, the haptic quality of a textile material has been tested by the human hand. The human feeling depends on several factors, e.g., personal and market specific preferences, the daily mood, and culture. A further disadvantage is the inability to feel the three basic haptic parameters individually, which determine the overall impression of a material that is touched by the hand. The emtec TSA Tactile Sensation Analyzer simulates the human hand…”

The emtec Electronic TSA is a 42-pound tabletop machine that uses sound and deformation to measure a fabric’s micro-surface, macro-surface and in-plane stiffness. It then takes the results through software and all sorts of algorithms in order to come up with a metric for a fabric’s hand-feel. Results can be categorized into expected market segments. The company claims an eye-opening near 100 percent correlation with human expectations. In short, they have quantified touch.

This development blows my mind in so many ways. Are you looking to seamlessly move production to a new factory and you need to replace the locally sourced fabrics? Send the new factory the hand-feel metric and let them match it. How about replacing a vintage fabric? Ask a textile mill if they have a fabric that feels like your old sample. Is a factory confused by a recent fabric delivery? Tell them to test the goods and you’ll have an answer in an hour. Perhaps you are searching for a material that is softer, smoother, or has different stretch and recovery? Each parameter can be individually tallied and searched. Textile taxonomy has arrived.

Remote work and video meetings are here to stay. Companies big and small are looking to a future where their process relies on a dispersed and electronically connected team. Any innovation that connects people on different sides of the planet in real time is a game changer. The Tactile Sensation Analyzer allows people to remotely share the sensation of fabric hand-feel. It’s like Zoom for your fingers. n

Disclaimer: Mr. Gray used to fish with a big net. Now he mostly just roots for the fish. The publisher may not share his opinions or sports analogies.