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A Screenless Smartwatch That Teases An Alternative Future Of UI

A smartwatch without a screen? Not such a dumb idea.

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For all the recent breakthroughs in interface design—whether it’s the virtual reality of HTC’s Vive headset, or the real-life holograms of the Microsoft Hololens—the technology is mostly visual, enabling a better way to see information that formerly lived on a screen.

And that’s great! But what about our other senses? What if we could touch all this information, too?

Moment ($129) is a new crowdfunding smartwatch by Somatic Labs. But unlike the Apple Watch, or really any other watch you know, it has no screen. Instead, it sends information by vibrating four actuators inside, placed in each corner of the watch’s body. And so after pairing to a smartphone via Bluetooth, it can do things like tell you who is calling by tapping out a certain pattern, or illustrate that you should turn right here by tracing out the direction on your wrist. Musicians will be able to set a metronome and feel it as they play.

Somatic Labs claims its vibrating technology is so advanced, it can draw out shapes like triangles and the letter U in a recognizable fashion, while animating explosions and left or right sweeps across your skin. And thanks to an open SDK, third-party developers will be able to incorporate pretty much any wrist-scribbling notification you can imagine.

In his past life in academia, co-founder Shantanu Bala spent six years at Arizona State University’s Center for Cognitive Ubiquitous Computing, where he developed UI experiments like vibrating gloves and body suits, the sort of sci-fi interfaces that seem like the perfect complement to a new wave of virtual and augmented reality devices. But in building his new company, Bala didn’t imagine such devices as a sensible first product.

"Although a glove allows us to communicate much more information, it doesn't allow a person to use the device on a regular basis," says Bala. "We want to create a user experience that disappears—a device that silently augments your life and makes you more productive without interfering with your work in any way."

So instead, they built a smartwatch. Or, what you might call a pretty dumb smartwatch, as far as smartwatches go. The Moment has no screen. There’s also no integrated accelerometer or heart tracker, as you’ll find in the Apple Watch and others. But unlike most of the smartwatch world, the Moment isn’t being positioned as a sleek fitness tracker, or some smaller, glanceable alternative to your smartphone. It’s meant to be a developer-friendly trojan horse to question the accepted standard that screens should be the de facto means of interface to begin with.

"We don't just want to make a smartwatch—we want to make a device that questions assumptions made by yesterday's technology: why do we need to communicate to users only through visual displays?" says Bala. "Our skin is constantly receiving information from the world around us, and we should be turning our bodies into programmable displays."

Bala isn’t the first person to dabble in this space. Haptics is a popular field of study. Just in the past few years, we’ve seen the University of Edinburgh use haptics to turn visual dance performances into something that the sight-impaired could feel, while MIT has experimented with vibrating shoes that can direct you through a city. What makes the Moment so enticing as an idea is that it feels like an earnest, early attempt to incorporate touch into the daily experience of digital technology. It’s easy to imagine how a second or third version of Moment, maybe fitted more like a glove or a thimble, could add crucial touch feedback to the floating interfaces of virtual and augmented reality.

When I ask Bala if Moment’s future is really a some sort of Hololens controller, he simply says, "We're definitely exploring opportunities in a wide range of spaces, but for now we're focusing on delivering an amazing product that people can use every day. Augmented reality and virtual reality platforms are gaining momentum, though!"

Indeed. It’s hard to imagine a young startup succeeding in a space that’s so nascent. So for now, we get a neat vibrating smartwatch—an invention that seems both far too simple and specialized to exist in another five years—but offers a $129 ticket to touch the future all the same.

[All Photos: via Somatic Labs]

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