We hear with our ears, and we feel with our hands. They’re the simple facts of being human, nature’s workflows for creating and experiencing stimulus.
But now, Disney Research has crossed these wires in a project called Ishin-Den-Shin (a Japanese expression for communicating through an unspoken mutual understanding). Developed by Olivier Bau, Ivan Poupyrev, and Yuri Suzuki, the system allows you to speak into a microphone, send this sound as electricity through your body, touch your finger to a friend’s ear, and allow them to hear through touch. And since it's just electricity, you can even have someone chained in the middle of the sender and receiver.
Truth be told, the physical process at work isn’t all that complicated. In fact, Disney has simply turned the body into an electrostatic speaker. (The finger provides the electrical impulse, and the ear is the diaphragm converting that impulse into sound.) Because of that simplicity, the system was built in just a few weeks, using equipment and science from other Disney Research projects—projects that have created other UI feats by passing current through the human body, from creating iPads that can recognize their user to adding multitouch surfaces to plant life and giving dumb objects a new level of smart tactile feedback.
"It originated and developed as a playful, open exploration of technology, intimacy, and communication," Poupyrev tells Co.Design. "It is more of an art project; we never expected it to become so serious."
But then Ishin-Den-Shin received a prize at ARS Electronica PRIX, and suddenly designers and media artists began demanding applications from the Disney team. "So we are working on them, but they will come later," Poupyrev says.
No doubt, it seems that Disney Research has been a bit surprised by the response to this particular project, when so many of their other inventions seem more immediately marketable. (For instance, the system’s sound quality is described as "pretty good" for mid-range frequencies but not very effective beyond that.) Still, it’s easy to see the project’s appeal. Whether or not Ishin-Den-Shin will make its way into my next cellphone, its core principle of opening new pathways of communication through existing human gestures—of connecting to technology through our unfettered bodies rather than screens—is incredibly alluring. It reminds me of that old, wonderfully humanistic AT&T slogan: Reach out and touch someone.