Soon Your Tech Will Talk to You Through Your Skin

By Clive Thompson  12.22.14  5:30 am 

When Thomas Ella gets a text message on his smartphone, he can sometimes tell what it says without reading it. Instead, he feels it: An app called Mumble! “plays” the text as a pattern of vibrations, syllable by syllable, using higher-intensity vibrations when a message has exclamation points or capitalizations. After a few weeks of using the app, Ella developed a sort of tactile ESP, an ability to recognize texts as coming from particular friends and to distinguish a significant message that needs a reply from an “LOL” that doesn’t. “It’s cool,” he says, “to have a reason not to pull out my phone.”

Haptic technologies have begun to flourish recently—tools that buzz, vibrate, or otherwise “communicate information through people’s skin,” as haptics pioneer Karon MacLean, of the University of British Columbia, puts it. Automakers like General Motors are producing drivers’ seats that vibrate in the direction of an impending collision. Apple’s new smartwatch can deliver taps of different intensity to your wrist to communicate everything from a new message to GPS directions. Haptics, it appears, is the next way we’ll interact with information—and each other.

It’s not hard to see why designers are looking for a new conduit. Our eyes and ears, the dominant modes for the digital world, are full to bursting. Devices bombard us with text alerts and audio bleeps. Your skin, on the other hand, is an “underused channel,” says Raymond Kiefer, a safety expert who helped design GM’s vibrating seats. “This is a way to cut through the visual and auditory clutter.”

There’s a danger here, of course. Vibrations cut through the white noise of today’s alert-o-sphere. But just as new freeway lanes increase traffic, a new channel for alerts could quickly turn into an attractive target for overuse—an exquisitely annoying form of overload. Arguably we want app makers to reduce the number of pings we get.

That’s why, to me, the most interesting use of haptics won’t be “hey, go check this out” alerts. It’ll be the potential to spawn a new mode of communication. People are extremely good at distinguishing among many different signals written on their skin. Google wearables designer Seungyon Claire Lee tested what she called BuzzWear, a wristband that vibrated three small buzzers in 24 different patterns. With 40 minutes of training, her subjects were able to distinguish among them with 99 percent accuracy. In another study, MacLean played patterns onto people’s fingertips via a smartphone game—and found they could remember them weeks later. “It was like learning new words, like learning verbal language,” MacLean says.

Crude buzzer patterns are likely to give way to more granular, complex signals. Already, inexpensive conductive threads can deliver tiny bursts of electricity. Lee envisions using them to stitch hundreds or thousands of haptic pixels into clothing that could “draw” a picture onto your skin: tactile illusion, as she puts it.

The alphabet of haptics could become the next emoji, a way of supplementing our traditional language—email, text—with expressive flourishes. It’ll be an intimate mode too, because fundamentally haptics is about being touched. (Apple has suggested that its watch could let you feel a loved one’s heartbeat in real time.) Powerful stuff, which is precisely why we want to be careful with it. We spent centuries learning to write on paper. Now we’ll learn to do it on skin.


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