Crazy UI Idea: Our Phones Should Speak In Vibrated Text

When the phone rings, Aza Raskin has an idea for how it can communicate who’s on the other line, without making a sound.

Crazy UI Idea: Our Phones Should Speak In Vibrated Text


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 borderline rude to just check the phone to see whose calling before slipping it away. I want to know who’s calling before I go pocket-diving.

Having my phone read out the caller’s name isn’t a tenable solution: I 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.

Why not have the vibrator buzz out the phonemes of the caller’s name?

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.” 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 you’re 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 four people. For women, that number is six, according to data from Primates on Facebook. 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 nine 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 of it as Pixar in your pocket.

[Top image by Mo Riza]

About the author

Aza is the founder of Massive Health, and was until recently Creative Lead for Firefox. Previously, he was Head of User Experience for Mozilla Labs.