Disney's Whispering Finger

Disney inventors showcase a way to transmit a spoken message through the body. Too bad it requires someone to stick his finger in your ear

2 min read
Disney's Whispering Finger

Remember the telephone game from grade school? Kids would line up and attempt to pass a whispered message from the front of the line to the back. Now Disney Research, in Pittsburgh, Penn., has come up with a high tech version of that game in which an audio message is passed not through voice, but with touch. Magical!

A goofy video from Disney demonstrates how it works. Four people stand in a row hugging or touching in some way. Holding onto a microphone, the first person records a message. The message is converted to an inaudible signal and transmitted from her to the others in the line through physical contact. The message only becomes audible when someone in the line touches the ear of another person. When that happens, a modulated electrostatic field is created, resulting in a small vibration of the earlobe, effectively whispering the message through the fingertip. 

The technology, dubbed Ishin-Den-Shin, received an honorary mention at this week's Ars Electronica Festival in Linz, Austria. Ishin-Den-Shin is a Japanese mantra that represents unspoken mutual understanding. Through Disney's technology, "bodies become a broadcasting medium for intimate, physical, sound communication," the game's inventors said. In other words, the content of the recorded message is beside the point. If you are going to allow a person to repeatedly stick his finger in your ear, you will build some kind of mutual understanding.

In a similar vein, a Japanese company years ago developed 'finger phone' using a technology called 'bone conduction'. A watch-like unit worn on the wrist converts incoming sounds into vibrations that are sent through the bones to the tip of the index finger. The user can then hear the sounds by placing the tip of her finger in her ear.

In grade school, telephone was great fun because when the last kid in the line announced what was whispered in his ear, it was always some nonsensical version of the original message. Eight-year-olds think that's hilarious. Ishin-Den-Shin loses that element of human error, but there may be other applications. Ishin-Den-Shin's inventors say they envision scaling up the technology to create magical storytelling experiences. 


Photo: Disney

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Are You Ready for Workplace Brain Scanning?

Extracting and using brain data will make workers happier and more productive, backers say

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A photo collage showing a man wearing a eeg headset while looking at a computer screen.
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Get ready: Neurotechnology is coming to the workplace. Neural sensors are now reliable and affordable enough to support commercial pilot projects that extract productivity-enhancing data from workers’ brains. These projects aren’t confined to specialized workplaces; they’re also happening in offices, factories, farms, and airports. The companies and people behind these neurotech devices are certain that they will improve our lives. But there are serious questions about whether work should be organized around certain functions of the brain, rather than the person as a whole.

To be clear, the kind of neurotech that’s currently available is nowhere close to reading minds. Sensors detect electrical activity across different areas of the brain, and the patterns in that activity can be broadly correlated with different feelings or physiological responses, such as stress, focus, or a reaction to external stimuli. These data can be exploited to make workers more efficient—and, proponents of the technology say, to make them happier. Two of the most interesting innovators in this field are the Israel-based startup InnerEye, which aims to give workers superhuman abilities, and Emotiv, a Silicon Valley neurotech company that’s bringing a brain-tracking wearable to office workers, including those working remotely.

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