The home of those tech tattoos you were raving about, the heads of Chaotic Moon's design and development studio in Austin, Texas let us have a tour of the latest weird and wonderful experiments in its R&D lab during this year's SXSW. Aside from an awesome VR demo, the one thing they all have in common is that these projects have very little to do with prodding apps and settings on screens.
Chaotic Moon calls this 'invisible UI' and it's a smart future gazing approach that's anticipating what comes after the smartphone in connected self innovation. Here are some of the concepts we got to see in action.
Under Currents is a nice example of how Chaotic Moon's R&D department is exploring behavioural design, specifically the idea of "nudge". The idea is that we can be trained to learn better habits by, for instance, a haptic tap on the shoulder. Through small Bluetooth modules, the studio's smart scrubs, for instance, could become a beacon, as does every room in a hospital, so that the system can keep track of which staff have just visited patients and how long it has been since their last break.
Medical errors, which cost the US one trillion dollars, increase by 300% when doctors and nurses have extreme fatigue, according to creative technologist Eric Schneider. Several healthcare companies are interested in the Under Currents approach to overworked staff and washing hands. It's a clever, modular system which means that the motors and LEDs can be placed at various activation points around the scrubs.
"Fatigue and sanitation, washing your hands, all those things can be taken off their shoulders, we can push them to a better system so they can really focus on what's important and that's saving lives. When the doctor leaves one room from dealing with a patient, they will get a haptic alert or see a blinking LED to remind them to wash their hands. We can even set it up so that if they then shake hands with another member of staff, they are nudged again."
Invisible UI doesn't just mean alerts without screens, as Invoc, another Chaotic Moon projects, shows. This concept is designed to bring a layer of gesture controls for third party apps onto smartwatches.
We saw a demo on an LG Watch Urbane, which already has gestures for Google's own cards - the idea is that you flick your wrist to activate the system then, once you have trained the system by repeating a specific gesture 15 times, you can point, twist or bring your fist down to interact with your smartphone, smart home or car.
"We started this project because we wanted to make these smartwatches more useful, more than just another screen to control your phone," said Matthew Murray, another creative technologist on the team. "Developers for the Apple Watch don't have access to the gyroscope, for instance. This system only uses the accelerometer but it would be more accurate at tracking orientation if it used the gyroscope too."
Murray talked about how we drew out the gestures on Post-It notes so he didn't forget them but if Invoc makes it beyonds the concept stage, he'd like to make, or have users make, GIFs for each gesture.
We haven't been able to demo this seriously futuristic tech yet but Lari, which has the tagline "think out loud" is a set of patches, with ECG sensors, which measure electrical signals sent from the brain to the larynx before we begin to talk.
The idea is that over time, these signals could be turned into a library of digital signatures and maybe one day, people who are unable to speak could communicate by, well thinking about what they want to say.
Forgetting to do up your fly is one of those problems that might not happen very often but it only takes one time to cause quite a lot of embarrassment. That's the thinking behind Notifly, a smart zipper that sounds silly but could be a clever blueprint for smart clothing and e-textiles that don't cost that much more than their dumb counterparts and, like Under Currents, nudge us into small habits.
"That's the whole idea of where we see e-textiles and wearables going," said Schneider. "All our e-textiles go along this system of - if you do a thing correctly, you will never be told anything. But the one time that you don't, you're pushed to do better and you create these habits. In about eight seconds, it will identify that the zipper is down and send you an alert to your phone. The system right now costs about $30, including the chip and the materials - Intel said we can have one of their Curie modules to try out.
Has anyone tried out Notifly in the real world yet? "No, I built them into my pants and no-one else can fit into my pants. I haven't worn them out yet. I should have done last week, I gave a talk at SXSW, I used the restroom just before and totally forgot if I had or hadn't."
Last but not least, Sensiry is a tech headband for the visually impaired which provides haptic feedback to allow people to move around their home, for example. There are a series of infrared sensors around the outside of the wearable, to allow for positional tracking, and vibration motors on the inside to provide haptic feedback to the user.
"Many systems designed for visually impaired people using expensive tech or are bulky devices worn around the neck," said Murray. "Sensiry is designed to be low cost, under $100 and comfortable to wear. With the range, it's not designed for navigation outside, necessarily, but more to stop people bumping into the corners of furniture inside their homes. We tested it out with an obstacle course and though it wasn't perfect, it worked well enough."