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.
Emily Waltz is a contributing editor at Spectrum covering the intersection of technology and the human body. Her favorite topics include electrical stimulation of the nervous system, wearable sensors, and tiny medical robots that dive deep into the human body. She has been writing for Spectrum since 2012, and for the Nature journals since 2005. Emily has a master's degree from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and an undergraduate degree from Vanderbilt University. She aims to say something true and useful in every story she writes. Contact her via @EmWaltz on Twitter or through her website.