↑ top

Social Sensory Surfaces

Social Sensory Surfaces

Physical Computing, Tactile (Textile) Interfaces and Collaborative Tools for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder 

Follow current research, led by Prof. Sean Ahlquist, in sensory architectures for children with autism here: http://www.materialarchitectures.com/social-sensory/

This research looks to develop new material technologies as tactile interfaces designed to confront critical challenges of learning and social engagement for children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). This interdisciplinary research brings together faculty, students and researchers from Architecture, Computer Science, School of Music, School of Information and Civil Engineering. Additionally, the team includes collaborators in Interaction Design, Occupational Therapy, and from the PLAY project (an early-intervention program in Ann Arbor for improving social interaction skills for children with ASD). The project connects expertise and technology in textile structures and CNC knitting, programming of gestural and tactile input devices, and design of haptic and visual interfaces for enhanced musical expression. With textiles, the tactile interface is expanded in scale, from wearables to environments and varied in types of input for human-computer interactions. The textiles are tailored for gradations of touch and pressure sensitive input from large sweeping gestures to fine touch, calibrated to prompt a wide variety of responses. For the initial phase of research, a five year-old girl with Autism named Ara is used as the focus of study, to develop technologies which address her specific motoric, communication and social challenges. Ara is the daughter of one of the lead primary investigators, Prof. Sean Ahlquist.

One aspect of the research is in developing tools for skill-building with fine and gross motor control. Children with ASD often have difficulties in understanding the position of their body in space (referred to as proprioception), making the control and grading of movements very difficult. The Stretch|Color and Stretch|Warp prototypes address these challenges through using the textile as a pressure sensitive interface. Visual feedback is altered based upon how much pressure is applied, or how far the textile has been stretched. Stretch|Color intends to, among other issues, address the pace of play, fostering intentionality in movement and provide a visual correspondence to a specific application of pressure. Colors shift in hue as the amount of pressure applied in a specific location increases. Stretch|Warp engages more full body movement incorporating momentum as a part of the visual feedback. As iterative pressure is applied, the visual morphing of the gridded surface intensifies.

The other aspect of this research focuses on developing games for collaborative play through multi- sensory engagement. Collaborative play helps children with ASD form skills in communication and social interaction, following the methods established by the PLAY Project in establishing “circles of communication” or back and forth interactions. Designing for specific sensory inputs and outputs helps the child engage, to improve skills in attentiveness, exploration and regulation. This is exemplified in the Stretch|Play prototype; a project formed of a large-scale textile environment with a range of tactile, visual and auditory feedback. Various sensory outputs are designed as overlays of projections and sound maps. Certain effects are triggered by a single activation point. Other effects are triggers by pairs of activation points, where a back and forth exchange is encouraged for two participants in order to select the set of matching triggers at the same time.

As a part of the seed funding from the Research Through Making Grant, the Stretch|Color project has been installed at the Spectrum Therapy Center where they are testing the technology on a daily basis with children that have a range of ASD related sensory issues. The intent with future funding and research is to expand the platform of tools using textiles as the primary interface, with testing in a clinical setting to determine their level of performance in improving physical and behavioral skills. The research looks to combine, in a seamless manner, the spatial, sensory and interactive qualities of the prototypes shown in this exhibition, while looking at how aspects can be continually tailored to more successfully address the individual challenges of each unique child with ASD. The overall intention is for the architecture to form engaging and comforting sensory experiences for children with autism, fostering better environments for learning and social interaction.

Project Team:

Primary Investigators:
Asst. Prof. Sean Ahlquist, Architecture
Dr. David Chesney, Computer Science
Assoc. Prof. Sile O'Modhrain, School of Music and School of Information 

Cathy Schuh, Occupational Therapist, Spectrum Therapy Center
Onna Solomon, Behavorial Therapist, P.L.A.Y. Project

Collin McRae Leix, Interaction Designer, Little Hill Studio
Dr. Rita Benn, Director of Education, U‐M Integrative Medicine 

Vanessa Argento, Taylor Boes, Evan Buetsch, Evan Cann, Sam Zhengcheng Cui, Karen Duan, Alina Granville, Peter Halquist, Patty Hazle, Molly Knight, Yu‐Jen Lin, Tommy Kyung Tae Nam, Andres Marin, Henry Peters, Coco Ke Shi, Bing Sun, Yurong Wu, Jason Chao‐Chung Yang, Dalton Zautke 

Special Thanks:
Liz Bartlett, Textile Designer, Knit‐It
Peter von Buelow, Structural Engineer, University of Michigan
Mary Burke, Director, Spectrum Therapy Center
Joshua Plavnick, assistant professor of special education, Michigan State University
Tabitha Wisecup, Assistant Director, Spectrum Therapy Center



Research Through Making 2015 - Social Sensory Surfaces from Taubman College on Vimeo.

Stretch|PLAY from Sean Ahlquist on Vimeo.


Plan Your Future
Housing, Community, and Economic Development
Land Use and Environmental Planning
Physical Planning and Design
Transportation Planning
Global and Comparative Planning