I'm Aza Raskin @aza. I make shiny things. I simplify.

I'm VP at Jawbone, focusing on health.

 

Know Who’s Calling: Tactile Design

I keep my phone in my pocket. This has the (un)fortunate side effect of putting the entire internet in my pants. When I get a call, I have to do a little dance to slip the phone out of my pocket and in to my hand.

I’m one of those people who thinks its rude to answer the phone in the middle of a conversation. It’s worse when it’s during dinner. It’s even border-line rude to just check the phone to see whose calling before slipping it away. I want to know whose calling before I go pocket diving.

Having my phone read out the caller’s name isn’t a tenable solution: I’d don’t want to broadcast that information to everyone near me. Imagine the embarrassment of being on a date and having your ex’s name announced by your phone to the room at large. Or worse, “Mom” being blared in the middle of your slam poetry reading. We’re going to need a more local solution.

I generally keep my phone on vibrate; it’s less intrusive that way. Given a name, it’s not difficult to deduce its basic constituent phonemes (every text-to-speech program does it). Here’s the thought, have the vibrator buzz out the phonemes of the caller’s name. The name Alexis, would be “br br brrr” and Jenny would be “Brr brr”, and Dan would be “bRrr. Imagine it as the sound of trying to say someone’s name without opening your mouth, complete with pitch and loudness modulation (which can be controlled with vibration speed and strength).

Playing around with a toy implementation, the mapping seems to be fairly natural. Learning the feel for a name is close to instant.

I know what your thinking, though: With my hundreds of contacts, how can I possibly differentiate them all from the buzz patterns?

The answer is that you don’t need to.

Most of us get calls regularly from less than 10 people. On Facebook, where the cost of communication is significantly lower than placing a call, an average man has two-way communication regularly with only 4 people. For women, that number is 6*. Learning to differentiate even 10 buzz patterns that feel like the way a name sounds is easy. That covers 90% of your use cases. And keeping you from needing to take your phone out of your pocket 9 out of 10 times is a big win.

Just a thought. It doesn’t bother you when it doesn’t work, doesn’t require you to go through a setup process to choose a ring/vibrate for each person, and is quick to learn. Plus, it gives the phone a bit of emotional impact (think Pixar).

Any other solutions?

Update: Dietrich Ayala has created a working version of this idea for Andriod phones.

RT @aza Know Who’s Calling: Tactile Design | Follow @aza on Twitter | All blog posts

View all 103 comments



Pyrzak

This happened to me the other day while watching transformers 2, I couldn’t take out my phone to look at it without lighting up the theater, and I ended up missing an important call that needed my attention.

I like the complexity of the vibrations with so little set up, but I’d just be happy with being able to set custom vibrations period, maybe I’m setting the bar too low.


When I first read this headline I imagined a phone that felt different depending on the caller. You could place your hand in your pocket and feel a special panel that caused a raised symbol when someone calls. The symbols would be configurable. A large circle for mom, three wavy lines for dad, and so on.

This makes it much more configurable but still “readable” without taking the phone out of your pocket. It also takes away the possibility that a call from your seldom heard from uncle Stan is confused with your father Dan.

The down-side is that you have to actually touch the phone.



Addas

Don’t tell me you are not aware of watches that communicate through bluetooth with your phone and display the caller’s name!!


Hi.
So, here’s my other solution (which I tried on an HTC Touch HD but a different purpose):
Your phone (Touch HD for e.g.) can have only 1 “grid” (e.g. a corner or any specific place on the phone) to vibrate.
There are 9 main places which I’d consider – the 4 corners, the middle of each side, and the centre.
Allow the user to select the number of permutations of the locations of vibrations.
The user does not need to guess what “Jenny” sounds like. If there are 2 Jennys whom he/she calls, differentiating is impossible. Hence, the number of permutations of these locations and not just the vibration of the whole set is used.
You’d totally feel it if the phone is in your side pocket.

Now, I don’t know if your iPhone works as such. TBH, it’s a crappy product and meant for the US market. But if you want to build the above, give it a try on the Touch HD/Blackstone, Diamond 1/2, Max4G. – I know they support the vibration feature at specific points.


Some bluetooth headsets will read off the name of an incoming call. Private, but wearing a bluetooth headset makes you look like a dork.
Motorola had a concept watch that would marquee the caller information over bluetooth. Crafty, but never produced and it’s a watch.

The text-to-vibrate idea is pretty smart and already has me mocking it up in Javascript for me Palm Pre. But, how do you deal with phonetically similar names (eg, Bill and Phil, Mom and Tom, etc)?



lqd

What about “composing” and assigning vibration schemes to people like you assign ringtones to them ?

Using some kind of morse code pattern ? with long and short buzzes.

Just buzzing x times where x is the caller’s index on your speed dial ?

Buzzing the last digits (probably around two should be enough) of the caller’s number ?

Only buzzing when the people calling you are from your favorites when the phone knows it’s in your pocket ? (the phone knows it’s locked, not in contact with your hands/skin, and probably at a somewhat vertical position or one side, not playing music, etc: lots of characteristics showing you’re not using it)


For us hams out there, using Morse code to vibrate the name would be a viable option, except that it would take a few seconds to morse out the entire name, and it’d take more skill and practice for immediate recognition of a caller’s name. Not so helpful for people who don’t know Morse, though.

A cool idea.


Another way and it’s possibly the best is to display the number and contact details over your contact lens or glasses over bluetooth.

It’s not a marketable product and will be a security risk despite extra precautions (ref. driving)


My coworker Seungyon Lee is doing something similar to this with a vibrating wrist band. See http://www.cc.gatech.edu/~sylee/01_research.htm for more details. She’s currently studying how many unique patterns she can make given the small amount of contact her wrist band has with your arm.

The wrist is chosen instead of just vibrating in your pocket because not all people keep phones in their pocket.



sil

Er, custom ringtones? :)

I don’t have mine on vibrate, though…



Aza Raskin

@Dylan: If you vibrate first and last names, you’re all good :)


OK, an interesting idea but in countries with monosyllabic languages, implementation is going to be a bit of a problem.

I know this is a very 19th century suggestion, but….
How about adding an “initials” field to the contacts list, and then vibrating the morse code for that field when the phone rings?



maureenhanratty

Often times my most urgent calls (and calls I want to avoid) are not from my contacts. For these it would be great to have a pulse that would indicate the area code or if the call is coming from an 800 number.


@Richard Discretely checking the caller on your cell phone is such a First World Problem that all my monosyllabic Vietnamese friends would probably roll their eyes at me.

I’m using the Double Metaphone phonetic algorithm to calculate pronunciation. There are quite a few name collisions (I never take last names, sigh) so I’m vibrating the phone number as a fallback.


My previous phone allowed me to assign different ringtones to each person, and had 9-10 different vibration patterns that you could also select, I believe.

I never made use of it, but found myself missing it the other day on my iPhone.


I don’t know how many phones on the market have variable vibration strength (I have a G1, which I don’t think does), but once that barrier’s passed I think your idea is pretty close to perfect.

And knowing some of the things out there, you should probably see a doctor if you’ve been putting the entire Internet in your pants.



sep332

@Dylan Hafertepen:
China counts as first-world, and has a lot of monosyllabic names.



Brad Boswell

It strikes me that the proposed solution is missing a key bit of information. “Mom” calling can be an emergency or her simply calling to chat and there’s no way for you or your phone to know the difference.
Unless the caller specifies it. I realize it’s an idea that goes back to pagers, but it’s valuable information that would really make a system like this work. If there was a vibration for the name and the priority then the recipient would be able to decide if they wanted to answer based on caller, priority and their own situation.

If vibrating the name is too complicated then creating groups with specific vibration patterns (suggested by others) would be a workable solution that’s probably available on most phones today.

And don’t most people text now days? Seems like texting avoids a lot of this problem in the first place.



kasdk

Another good idea! You are on a roll here.



mikeh

I think lqd is on the right track. The phoneme vibration idea is brilliant and should certainly be an option, but really any distinct pattern would work (who cares if it’s actually morse code or just “3 dashes for mom” and “2 dashes for jenny”).

Also as we all know, “silent” mode can often be heard from across the room, so vibrating out a caller’s name potentially defeats the privacy idea.


Brilliant idea Aza!

@ Richard Milewski, languages evolutionarily have chosen different approaches to encoding information, but they could also be reflected in this type of . Syllables often can be longer or shorter, and some languages that don’t even have consonants at the end of syllables have long and short vowels to “compensate” (in an information theoretic sense). Completely monosyllabic (monomoraic) languages (rare) often have tone, but if we could do different vibration speeds we could even reproduce tonal languages. Given our brains’ knack for patterns and the tenacity of our linguistic faculty, I think this probably would work remarkably well.

Bravo Aza. So when are you releasing the azaphone? ;)


Whoops—had an incomplete sentence in there as I was writing asynchronously…



Joan

A friend of mine used to have Morse code vibrating custom ringtones that buzzed the initials of the caller. When he upgraded to a generally better phone, he was really sad to lose that feature.


Very cool. One variation on this idea could be to tap into something I’ll dub “vibration motion.” If vibrations could occur in distinct localized regions of the phone then they could be strung together to produce a feeling of motion. So a vibration moving down could be assigned to one friend, moving up another, a circle a relative, etc. Utilizing an accelerometer would allow the user to keep the phone in their pocket at any orientation.

Motion may be more easily discernible (not to mention quicker to translate) than distinct buzzes.



s

from the android sdk doc:


public void vibrate (long[] pattern, int repeat)

Vibrate with a given pattern.

so the code upport is there for android users, it won’t be long to see an implementation.


Cool idea!

we use vibration patterns on the mobile devices to guide disabled people (blind and deaf-blind) on urban environments

Morse could be dangerous if everybody knows Morse in few years… so, everybody would listen (dissimulating) to understand the silent morse’s vibration! :)

we should create an standard and international haptic language!


Sounds like you need Tactons : http://www.tactons.org/

The tricky part is finding a range of vibrations that are sufficiently distinct, that you can detect through clothing, and that can be generated by the device you’re carrying. There’s not a lot of range in the devices currently available, but there is research ongoing, and some of the researchers behind that project have done work for mobile phone companies…



parse

Wow. You’ve definitely identified a popular problem.


@Dylan: Hash the name then map to a set of buzzes. The technique would be similar to how they do the avatars on stack overflow.

I’ve always wanted a (true)colored LED on the top of the phone for this. Stick your hand near your pocket (reflects off the hand) or glace at your purse and get the color. The vibrate (or wrist vibrate mentioned above) is a better solution but I’d had the LED because I couldn’t figure out how to handle purses.


Heads up: if you have phantom vibrate this new method of detecting incoming callers will haunt you.


Have you considered the simplest solution of assigning different ringtones to each contact and setting the volume to very very low (or ascending). Many phone’s vibrate to the tune of the ringtone.. :)

So, while we wait for some mobile manufacturer to see the value of this need and implement it, we can probably use this method… :D



Tom

I had this idea, too, except with ringtones instead of vibrations. And instead of setting custom ringtones, you just create random ones (maybe seeded with the person’s name, so that “John” and “Joan” sound similar?). Eventually you’d learn which ringtone is whose. And if you can’t tell, that’s fine, because you couldn’t tell before when all the ringtones were the same!

The only problem would be that maybe you couldn’t tell if it was your phone or someone else’s phone ringing. All of the tones would have to be of the same style (volume, instrument, musical type, etc.).



Jim Hollan

Have a look at Kevin Li’s wok at http://www.kevinli.net/
especially on eyes-free interaction.

Jim


Thanx for the valuable information.Motorola had a concept watch that would marquee the caller information over bluetooth. so vibrating out a caller’s name potentially defeats the privacy idea. keep posting. Will be visiting back soon.


vere vere vere nice…


I learned a lot here.

This is just what I want


This happened to me the other day while watching transformers 2, I couldn’t take out my phone to look at it without lighting up the theater, and I ended up missing an important call that needed my attention.


This happened to me the other day while watching transformers 2, I couldn’t take out my phone to look at it without lighting up the theater, and I ended up missing an important call that needed my attention.



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This happened to me the other day while watching transformers 2, I couldn’t take out my phone to look at it without lighting up the theater, and I ended up missing an important call that needed my attention.


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I think that’s a pretty neat idea. My current watch is a Timex that mimics a chronograph digitally but has both an analog and digital face: I can hide the digital part of it by pressing a button and leave the clean lines of a analog watch (which I prefer). Since I enjoy the benefits of digital for cycling and training and such, it’s nice to have that option.


I’m one of those people who thinks its rude to answer the phone in the middle of a conversation. It’s worse when it’s during dinner. It’s even border-line rude to just check the phone to see whose calling before slipping it away. I want to know whose calling before I go pocket diving.


For us hams out there, using Morse code to vibrate the name would be a viable option, except that it would take a few seconds to morse out the entire name, and it’d take more skill and practice for immediate recognition of a caller’s name. Not so helpful for people who don’t know Morse, though.


ust a thought. It doesn’t bother you when it doesn’t work, doesn’t require you to go through a setup process to choose a ring/vibrate for each person, and is quick to learn. Plus, it gives the phone a bit of emotional impact (think Pixar).


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