Reach Out and Touch Someone with a Haptic Phone

Students design a device that turns speech into physical sensations.

Jun 12, 2020

Sometimes when you are speaking to someone on the phone hearing their voice or seeing them on a video call is just not enough. Every so often you just want to reach out and touch them.

Now, thanks to two art students, Sandeep Hoonjan and Xianzhi Zhang at the London Royal College of Art have designed a pair of devices – that look like walkie talkies – to physically experience conversations.

he project, called “Feel the Conversation”, consists of two handheld machines that connect to a telephone that, according to Deezen, can translate speech into a series of haptic (the sense of touch) patterns. One attachment actually can reproduce a licking motion on the ear of the person who is using the device.

There are two attachments, the one shaped like a tongue is made of silicone and there is also a brush style silicone feeler and they produce different sensations. The movements are similar, the designers said, to a smartphone vibration but more exaggerated.

But why use a tongue? The students told Deezen that they wanted to make the device look recognizably human in nature.

Hoonjan and Zhang who are both studying innovative design engineering created this device as a way to physically connect people who are physically separated. Although the device was designed before the Coronavirus pandemic, a lock-down situation, is one such example.

“A friend told me, 'people are missing the feeling of touch, I can't lean into the zoom window, or my phone to actually feel like I'm close to them'”, Hoonjan told Dezeen. “This project allows people to feel close to others in a way that is real, by using their speech as a reference point, but adding the feeling of touch.”

The device, connected to the phone via a 3.5-millimeter port, records the user’s speech and then that is analyzed to determine the intonation and volume of what was said. Quieter speech will generate slower motions and louder speech faster movements.

The designers say there are practical uses for the haptic device like lowering language barriers.   When two people don’t speak the same language, audio just doesn’t cut it according to Hoonjan. “So, we searched for another way to playfully express the feeling of a conversation between people, that maybe don't even speak the same language, share cultures, or just haven't had physical contact for a while.

Smithsonian Magazine.

It came back to touch. Many haptic devices on the market were unsatisfying to us, mostly relying on vibration. But we wanted something more intimate and with a greater bandwidth of sensation.”

While the prototype cannot transmit long distances, the goal is to develop a method of transmitting the digital signals over WIFI, Bluetooth, or any other data transfer system.

Other haptic systems have been developed for mobile devices according to Smithsonian Magazine. Originally designed for gaming, haptic devices will have many useful applications including physical rehab and navigation when fully developed.

But will a tongue licking device take off? In the past, haptics has been good at making things noticeable, with vibration in your phone or the rumble packs in gaming controllers,” Heather Culbertson, a computer scientist at the University of Southern California told Smithsonian Magazine.

“But now there’s been a shift toward making things that feel more natural, that more mimic the feel of natural materials and natural interactions,” she said.

Who knows, being tickled with a virtual feather or having your ear licked may be the new way to communicate.

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BONNIE RIVA RAS, EDITOR & WRITER
Bonnie Riva Ras has dedicated her life to promoting social justice. She loves to write about empowering women, helping children, educational innovations, and advocating for the environment & sustainability.