Talking Through Touch

Clive Thompson explains why we may soon be able to feel who’s texting us:

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. …

[T]o 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.

Thompson imagines that the “alphabet of haptics could become the next emoji, a way of supplementing our traditional language—email, text—with expressive flourishes.”