Imagine you’re on a date enjoying a nice dinner and a great conversation, and then you receive a text message. Pulling out your phone to check the message would derail the conversation, and would be rude to your dinner partner. But, the message could be important enough to require your attention — you just don’t know without reading it. Situations like that are a common source of social friction in today’s society, but haptic messages may be the perfect solution.
The goal here is simple and certainly not new: allow people to read a message in a discrete, non-visual way. But, this method, developed by Purdue College of Engineering researchers funded by Facebook, is very unique, and has a lot of potential for relaying verbose messages without requiring the recipient to visually read them. Their system has a sleeve that the user wears on their forearm, and which contains 24 tactors that can stimulate the skin in specific areas. Those can communicate 39 individual phonemes, which are the specific sounds used in speech and that can be strung together to form sentences.
Using the haptic system requires that the user learn how to translate the tactor sensations into phonemes. Their testing of 12 subjects showed that 100 words could be learned in 100 minutes, and that half of the subjects could interpret the words with 80% or higher accuracy. With more practice, their vocabulary and accuracy could potentially grow dramatically. Aside from the convenience of being able to check messages discretely, this system could, more importantly, be used by people who are visually impaired and can’t see the phone screens that many of us take for granted.