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The Newest User Interface? Rhythm

Forget sight and sound. Haptics are an increasingly sophisticated way for wearable devices to communicate information.

Haptics are tactile sensations that convey information. The vibration of your silenced cellphone, the rumble control on your gaming joystick, and the nudge from your Apple watch’s Taptic Engine: These are means to communicate, without using words. You have a message. You blew something up. Time to go to your meeting.

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But for the most part, these notifications are dumb, delivered at a constant strength in a consistent pattern. So a marketing email and a call from your son’s teacher trigger the same sensory response, with no nuance as to priority. (The Apple Watch, for instance, has unique rhythms for different apps, but don’t distinguish for importance or individuals.)

But social etiquette, coupled with lab research on wearables for the sight-impaired, are driving development of richer, non-visual ways to impart information and note its importance. It’s evolving haptics into its own language, an electronic Esperanto that uses rhythm as its interface.

Case in point is Viawear‘s Tyia, a smart bracelet made of leather and precious gemstones. “The original premise was, how can we make the user able to quickly distinguish between a notification that is critical and one that isn’t without looking at her phone?,” says Ben Isaacson, the company’s CEO. “So we began playing with haptics and four of its vectors: strength, pattern, frequency, and duration.”

To that end, Isaacson and his team created 20 memorable patterns that users can assign to contacts, social-media apps, and, eventually, content keywords. Included is one that accelerates then de-accelerates (“it’s like a rollercoaster,” he says) and a low-grade, long and pulsing vibration that Isaacson affectionately refers to as “a slow burn.” (“There’s something sensual, and even sexual, about it,” he says of the rhythm. “It’s the kind of thing you’d want to assign to your significant other.”)

The patterns, which are set up on a smartphone, can be utilized alone or in conjunction with Tyia’s eight color cues.

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Aside from real-life experiences, Isaacson cites as inspiration the Pebble watch—which offers different notification patterns for different apps—as well as some prototype wearables for the sight-impaired. Particularly relevant are some of the products developed by researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology, including a vibrating glove that uses passive haptic learning to teach wearers to read and write Braille.

Yet one of the sticking points thus far for haptics has been battery life. In short, vibrations eat up power. But Tyia—which will begin shipping in Q4 of 2015 or Q1 of 2016—doesn’t have a screen. This means, unlike a cell phone or smartwatch, it can get away with creating very strong vibrations for extended periods yet still last for at least three days on a charge, claims Isaacson.

Isaacson realizes there is an education process involved with haptics, as it’s a new language that our brains will need to learn to understand and process. But he is confident it can happen. “When you think of Braille, its readers can memorize hundreds of patterns over time,” he says.

But that noted, the San Francisco-based Viawear will still start small, with 12 patterns in version 1.0. In subsequent versions it will introduce additional patterns, as well as the ability for the user to make her own.

Mentioning neuroscientist David Eagleman, who talks about the marriage of technology and biology, Issacson says that, at the moment, “we’re all really primitive in our haptic abilities.” However, with commercial efforts like Tyia, Pebble, and perhaps future iterations of Apple Watch, “It’s like this is the first volley in opening up a larger arena of senses. It’s a new form of feeling that really could create meaning.”

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About the author

Julie Taraska is a New York-based writer, e-retail editrix, and (somewhat) reformed punk who has worked for everyone from Wallpaper* to Gilt Groupe. Reach her on Twitter at @julietaraska.

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