It’s not so helpful to see a call on your smartwatch when you have to pull our your phone to take it anyway. And therein lies the problem with products like the Apple Watch: They’re often not a replacement for your phone, but an intermediary to inevitably using it.
But at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show, Samsung’s secret R&D lab—the same lab that’s giving you hands in mobile virtual reality—showed off a promising concept to fix one of the biggest problems with smartwatches. Called TipTalk, it’s technology that can send sound from your smartwatch through your arm so when you touch your finger to your ear, you can hear a call or a voicemail—no headphones required.
The technique looks similar, if not identical, to research shared by Disney back in 2013, which used a modified microphone to conduct sound through your body to your ear on contact. In Disney's case, it turned sound into electricity, piped it through your body, and then treated your ear as an electrostatic speaker—basically vibrating your ear the same way a speaker's diaphragm vibrates. Now Samsung appears to have miniaturized such technology into wearable form (though there’s no word on whether or not it’ll make its way into Samsung’s own smartwatches soon). Engadget reports that TipTalk works pretty well, too, even though the effect was a bit too quiet for the loud trade show floor at CES.
Engineering breakthroughs like these can be easy to dismiss as a gimmick rather than revolutionary UX, but I like TipTalk for a few reasons. First, it maps hearing UI into a gesture that we already might use to hear to something better—it’s as if you’re Mariah Carey singing in a recording studio, zoning in on the music. Second, it could be practical in real world use. You see a new voicemail on your watch, and without even a button press, you listen—but crucially, you still opt-in to hear the message rather than just have it play. And third, the gesture conveys to people around you that you’re occupied. If that last point doesn’t seem important, than you never spoke to someone wearing Google Glass who was spookily gazing through you while reading other information.