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

I'm VP at Jawbone, focusing on health.

 

We Nod While Talking on the Phone. Design For It.


Admit it. Even though you know the other person can’t see you, you still nod in agreement while talking on the phone. You gesture. You gesticulate. You communicate in a medium destined never to be communicated. That extra set of meanings dies a local, meaningless death.

We gesture because it’s part of our lexicon. It’s involuntary. And those gestures matter; they really do convey information. Using them wisely in the classroom, for instance, increases the rate of learning and learned material retention. On the phone, though, we do without and use carbon-heavy transit to bridge the physical gap.

Yet with technology, perhaps we can return this funny quirk-of-behavior to it’s rightful place as a communicator.

As I sat recently, nodding along to a friend’s story, I realized that my iPhone knew fully well what I was doing. It just sat in beautiful-but-ineffectual silence. Given the accelerometer and proper programming, it could be conveying my nod tactiley across the ether: If I nod, the other phone vibrates a pattern conveying the vigorousness of the nod and on screen, it shows an animated representation of me nodding; If I shake my head, a different set of vibrations goes over the line, and my representation shakes it’s head sadly (or curtly, or slowly in disbelief, or…).

Ideally, there would be a natural mapping between my head’s actions and the feeling on the receiving phone—a nod should feel like a nod, a shake should feel like a shake. I’m not sure if that’s possible with the current iPhone, but given three shake-and-shimmy locations creating a facsimile becomes feasible.

Even if we can’t create a natural mapping, the brain’s plasticity comes to the rescue. When you use a tool, you’re brain actually represents that tool as an extension of your body. Similarly, when you’re brain gets consistent input from a real-world sensor, it quickly learns to map that into a sort-of six sense. As long as there was a different feeling for the different types of nods and head shakes, and a way to learn which means what (say by looking at the screen), your brain would soon process the vibrations into their gestural meaning subconsciously.

You’d just know that the other person was nodding agreement.

A nod-aware phone would make my daily communications that much more humane, and technology that much more human.

Of course, I’d still feel silly gesturing with my hands.

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ronnie

good idea


That’s a pretty neat observation. It just has be presented in a way that isn’t annoying to either party and I think little images would be just fine, while the call is going since vibrating might be a intrusive.


I would not be so sure it is always a great idea. There is a well established voice-only communication pattern in the society – phones been around to a few generations. It proved as an invaluable tool for those who have troubles with non-verbal communications and taking it away, or making it an extra configuration step may be extra hassle and inconsistency with other verbal-only phones/media. Besides, I would hate to talk over the phone from our backyard recliner, make a negative nod gesture and have it interpreted as a positive one. Simply because my head was at a “non-standard” angle.



Johnathan

In my opinion it seems very unnatural to have a nod transmitted as vibration or something. Communication apart from language and tone is really about gestures, that’s right. But those gestures create an atmosphere; in most cases they aren’t primarily supposed to deliver information.

Plus: those gestures don’t die a local, meaningless death. Yes, they are local, and that is the most important part: the people in the adjacencies do notice them. It gives an impression on them. That’s where the information delivered by the gestures belong: to the people surrounding you. Take it as an excuse for disturbing them with your call, or whatever you like.

If you really want to give a certain piece of information to the person you speak to on the phone, you can say the meaning of your gesture along with that gesture itself. The other way round, if you don’t want the surrounding people to take part of the call, just don’t do gestures. :-)



Pete

You need to localize it since in India nodding have different meanings.



Mike Beltzner

Very interesting idea, but I wonder if it might not inadvertently send the wrong message from time to time.

Remembering that, as Madhava likes to say, “mobile user is mobile,” I wonder if actions like me turning my head before I cross the street while I’m on the phone might not end up coming across to someone as if I’m shaking my head. :)

I’m looking forward to a new generation of devices that pick up context and pass it along, though, in general. Gets tricky, though, when mobile users exist in multiple contexts. Still, things like when I rotate the phone up and away from my mouth automatically muting the phone, or when I press it closer to my ear increasing the volume … that’d all be awesome.


I like the concept of trying to transmit gestures, but I’m not sure the technology suggested at either end would work.

When you nod, do you nod your head and your phone, or just your head? Maybe the phone could use it’s camera instead?

I’ve no ideas for the other end though. Vibration seems a bit too different to a real nod/shake to be understood naturally, and a video on the screen won’t work if you have the phone to your ear.

@pete That’s not a problem – just think in software-style layers. So long as the phone says “the other person is nodding” it is up to the person reading that to interpret what the nod actually means.



asdasdl

This is a great idea! It remains to be seen whether it will work as expected but it is certainly a great idea.



Aza Raskin

@Pete: The idea is that you transmit physical motion, not higher-level semantic meaning. People take the roll of translating the act into meaning, and so no localization is required.

@Ian: Good point. Having just put my phone to my ear again, there is some slight decoupling of my heads bobs from the phone’s motion, but there is certainly correlation. As for vibration, after a little bit of time my argument is that it would become second-nature. It certainly wouldn’t start out as a natural mapping, but might end up that way.

@Mike: That’s the benefit of not having the phone attempt to extract higher-level meaning. The human on the other end is still responsible for figuring out what the gesture coming through means; think of it as another band of psychical communication rather than a definite head-nod-of-affirmation communication channel.

I love the idea of press-to-my-ear means increase volume.


Interesting idea, but I wonder how useful it would be in practice. First of all you might not really want all your gestures transmitted to the listener.
More importantly, you would have to consider how intrusive these vibrations would be to the experience of the user. In a practical scenario you would be speaking and getting the nod vibrations from the other party at the same time. Thus your brain needs to process that information and also work on what you are saying. Might get a little complicated.
However I do agree that phone conversations have a lot of scope for improvement. Priority requirements would be a way to convey effectively ;)


But is this truly universal? In my country, Bulgaria, nodding / shaking your head have the opposite meaning:

Yes and No in Bulgaria:

http://goeasteurope.about.com/od/bulgariaandthebalkans/qt/yesandno.htm



Aza Raskin

@Vladimir: That’s the beauty. People decide what the head nodding/shaking means. The phone just relays it.


Just a sidenote:
Some cultures gesture a lot with their hands, I was told by a greek person once that it’s called the ‘european language’ because it makes up for differences in verbal language.


I quite dislike the idea since it would only be slightly valid in a very small amout of cases (at least for me). and even then, i think it would be annoying, and assuming i didnt find the actual vibrating or whatever you’re using to convey the message annoying, learning to interpret the messages would be even worse. Finally, this will only work between two iphones, or smartphones, which would limit me to maybe 1 person that might actually call me.


@Dan Cardin:

“Finally, this will only work between two iphones, or smartphones, which would limit me to maybe 1 person that might actually call me.”

But what if phones had the possibility to exchange meta-data, according to some standard protocol, during the calling or the actual conversation? So my *phone could notify the device on the other end of the line “Hi, I support the “nod” protocol, the “x” protocol, the “y” protocol…”

Currently, the only useful meta-data exchanged during a phone call is the caller’s number (http://www.mobile-phone-directory.org/Glossary/C/CLIP.html)

The ability to send along a VCARD or a signature, as in emails, would be, I think, a major improvement.



Richard zaragoza

I really like the idea of having the entire back of the device blanketed in a matrix of motors then you could have a near infinte number of haptic patterns and signals. Through the vibration patterns you could create pulses and shapes even intricate word sound like feelings.


Great idea.

In “When you use a tool, you’re brain …”, your “you’re” should be a “your”.


Funny idea. The interesting thing would be that once people would be aware that their phone is transmitting their nods and head shakes, they might consciously choose to nod and shake their heads on purpose (or with greater emphasis), to ensure the right message is being sent, so not only would this technology take advantage of the normally useless gestures I make with my head but it would be *encouraging* them.


I have my phone in my bags while taking calls and a light BT headset on my ear. Now, would the person on the other side get a node when my bag is shaking? Would I have to give up the ease of only having a lightweight thing on my ear because I _need_ to look at the screen of the phone to get what the other side is communicating? Things might not always be as helpful or easy as they seem ;-)



Luca Ben

I think you are drug abusing or drunk alcool before writing this Aza :-)
Just kidding… :-D

L.



Tim

I think this is one of those “wouldn’t it be cool if…” ideas that definitely are cool, but really wouldn’t work out. There are just too many problems with it. (everyone else has pointed most of them out, so I see no need to restate them)
One that wasn’t mentioned:
Regarding the universality of the nod or shake: if there is some sort of visual indication that indicates an emotion, (like “and my representation shakes it’s head sadly (or curtly, or slowly in disbelief, or…).”) then you just killed the “phone is just a relay” idea, at least for when viewing the phone and not only feeling the vibration. I think the training of looking at the image will mean that your brain will carry these assumed emotions on even after you rely only on vibration.
Also, how would you view the screen to see what means what while you’re using the phone?



Majken "Lucy" Connor

The problem with a visual indicator is that people will then take their phones away from their heads and hold them in front of them to watch for the indicators. That means you’ll no longer be able to track the head gestures the same way.

I think it’d be interesting though to integrate headsets into the picture. If the phone is tracking the hand instead of the head (since the headset is tracking the head) then you have a chance to track hand gestures, too.


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That’s a pretty neat observation. It just has be presented in a way that isn’t annoying to either party and I think little images would be just fine, while the call is going since vibrating might be a intrusive.


That’s a pretty neat observation. It just has be presented in a way that isn’t annoying to either party and I think little images would be just fine, while the call is going since vibrating might be a intrusive.



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Just a sidenote:
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