Technology & Science·Q&A

Good vibrations: touch-based communication may be the future of wearable tech

Most of us are spending more and more of our lives staring at screens. But one tech startup is bucking that trend, with a new wearable device called Moment. Instead of a screen, it communicates through your sense of touch.

Moment wearable replaces visual and audio information with haptic feedback

Somatic Labs' new wearable device, called Moment, communicates information through touch rather than a screen or sounds. (Somatic Labs)

From smartphones to laptops to menu boards at restaurants, most of us are spending more and more of our lives staring at screens.

But one tech startup is bucking that trend, with a new wearable device called "Moment." Instead of a screen, it communicates through your sense of touch.

CBC Radio technology columnist Dan Misener explains how it works — and what makes it a different approach to wearable technology like the smartwatch.

How does this new wearable work?

Somatic Labs, the Arizona-based company behind the Moment, is billing it as the "first device that communicates entirely through your sense of touch."

It's a device designed to be worn around the wrist, like a watch (though its creators go out of their way to point out they're not calling it a smartwatch). It uses small motors to produce what's called "haptic feedback" — vibration pulses and patterns on your skin.

The idea is to communicate information through touch without requiring you to look down at a screen. And in fact, the Moment device has no screen at all — there's literally nothing to look at.

Designed to be worn on your wrist like a watch, Moment uses small motors to produce haptic feedback, or vibration pulses and patterns on your skin. (Somatic Labs)
So it seems like an interesting counter-trend — selling a digital device and marketing it based on a feature it doesn't have.

But it also highlights how touch is an emerging mode of interaction with our devices.

And what's interesting about Moment is that it takes this idea to its logical extreme. What happens if you get rid of sight and sound, and rely only on touch for communication with a digital device?

What's different about Moment?

Shantanu Bala is one of the creators of Moment. (Somatic Labs)
Most smartphones and fitness trackers already have vibration motors.

And Shantanu Bala, who's one of Moment's creators, acknowledges a lot of devices on the market will buzz to give you a notification.

But, he says, you get the same buzz for everything — so it's hard to tell which buzzes are important, and which ones aren't. And that's where his device comes in.

"Moment has an entirely different approach in that it conveys information by drawing the different shape on your skin, like a left arrow if you're approaching a left turn while you're driving," he said.

"There's simply much more detail to the sensation that tells you what has happened, in addition to telling you that something has happened."

By using touch, he says, you can build a device that isn't visually distracting. That's especially important if you're driving or cycling, for example, and you shouldn't be looking down at a screen.

What information can be communicated through touch?

Shantanu believes it's possible to convey large amounts of information simply through touch, without relying on pictures or sounds. And you can see that idea in some of the features of the Moment.

The first is his example of drawing an arrow on your skin to indicate an upcoming turn — something Somatic Labs calls "silent GPS navigation."

If you're driving, walking or cycling, you can get turn-by-turn directions on your wrist. The motors will draw what they call "silent vibrotactile shapes" on your wrist, telling you which direction to go.

Using what the developers call 'silent GPS navigation,' the Moment wearable device produces touch sensations to provide directions. (Somatic Labs)
There's also a feature called "invisible caller ID,"  where each person in your address book gets a unique rhythm. So you can tell who's calling on your phone by the specific touch the Moment creates.

For musicians, they're promoting a metronome feature, which will tap out a beat as you play along. And because the device can create different shapes on your wrist, they say it can help you learn to play an instrument like the guitar, where you have to move your hands into different shapes and positions.

Finally, yes — the device can tell you the time. Even though it doesn't have a screen or a traditional watch face to show you the time, it creates vibrations that move around your wrist, so you can feel time passing.

What about accessibilty?

A lot of Shantanu's early work in haptics had to do with designing for accessibility. 

For instance, he built a system that turns sound into tactile sensations that you feel on your back. This was designed for people who use cochlear implants.

"We definitely are designing Moment to be very accessible to people with a visual disability or a hearing disability, and allowing them to tap into a lot of the things that many of us just take for granted in our daily interactions with other people, as well as our surroundings," he said.

"And we think that this benefit also translates to everybody, because we want people to be more present in the world around them, and be paying more attention to the things they could be looking at all around their surroundings."

What's next for haptics?

We're likely going to see more and more of it, and we're already starting to see haptics integrated into more and more mainstream consumer electronics.

For instance, when Apple recently announced their new iPhone, they replaced the physical home button with a haptic button. Instead of pressing in, the button vibrates to simulate a button press.

Apple's latest iPhone model replaces a physical home button with a haptic button. Instead of pressing in, the button vibrates to simulate a button press. (Beck Diefenbach/Reuters)
As for wearables, we're talking about a market that's expected to reach $34 billion annually by 2020. One forecast predicts almost 275 million wearable devices — including smart wristbands and watches — will be sold this year. And a lot of those devices will likely have screens.

But it's worth paying attention to devices like Moment, because they push back against the assumption that everything should have a screen.

Of course, the other way you can keep your eyes off a smartwatch is by not owning a smartwatch — which is fairly easy (and inexpensive).  

About the Author

Dan Misener

CBC Radio technology columnist

Dan Misener is a technology journalist for CBC radio and CBCNews.ca. Find him on Twitter @misener.