Moment CEO on reimagining wearables with advanced tactile sensations

Screens be damned, it's all about haptics with the Moment wearable
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It's become a staple for many companies to figure out ways to incorporate smartwatches and fitness trackers with vibrant screens that make reading notifications and seeing data easily. But is it the most efficient way to use a wearable?

There are plenty of fitness trackers that don't use screens, instead opting for LED lights and haptics for various notifications and tracking cues. They aren't always the most helpful though since it takes a while to differentiate what the buzzing and lights are referring to. Somatic Labs is trying to solve that problem by providing advanced haptics through its wearable, Moment.

Read next: Beyond screens - what's next in voice, haptics and gestures

Co-founder and CEO Shantanu Bala spoke with us about why we're better off without screens and switching to wearables with quality haptics.

Down with screens

Moment CEO on reimagining wearables with advanced tactile sensations

One reason Bala has decided to go screenless is his past work. Bala started researching haptics seven years ago while still a student at the Center for Cognitive Ubiquitous Computing at Arizona State University.

He created projects like turning video into touch for blind people, and building a glove that could draw different shapes on a person's hand along with several other experimental research wearables but after graduating, he wanted to dive deeper.

Bala says, "I wondered, how could I take these experiences and turn them into products that anyone could use and interact with? How could it become a consumer device? What features would be the most interesting?"

After partnering with fellow ASU students Jake Rockland and Ajay Karpur, to begin working on Moment in earnest for the general public.

Aside from knowledge on haptics based on years of in-depth research and development, Bala says wearables made now shouldn't have to rely on yet another screen.

"The fundamental idea is that a wearable device should be built for what the human body does best, and the human body feels. It's constantly feeling information from the world around it. So our wearable devices should be turning our skin into a programmable display rather than having another LCD screen to look at."

How Moment works

Moment CEO on reimagining wearables with advanced tactile sensations

First and foremost, Moment is not a smartwatch. It works similarly and has accelerometer, magnatometer and gyroscope sensors but, of course, there's no screen. Instead of looking at your wrist to see a missed call or text, you get notifications through tactile shapes that are drawn directly on your skin. A series of advanced motors, provide the haptic feedback where each corner of the wearable 'draws' specific sensations.

"Because we're using four points of contact, we can explore shapes between those planes. The design revolves around seeing how you can take the idea of drawing shapes and encapsulate it in the wearable. If you look at bottom of it (the Moment device), you'll see the four corners producing the sensation. There's a lot of room in between to draw the shapes out."

If you're unconvinced, think of how you can assign different vibration patterns for people in your mobile phone. Over time, you start to remember what the patterns mean. Of course, there can also be ring tones and sounds to help but if on silent, you'd still likely know who's texting or calling. That's a lot of work for your whole phonebook, or even the 10 people you talk to most.

Moment CEO on reimagining wearables with advanced tactile sensations

Moment works in a similar fashion, but Bala says the device will automatically assign patterns as well.

"Because we have a very sensitive, specific set of motors we're using to produce the tactile sensations, we can not only tell you something has happened, but we can also tell you what happened," he explained.

"A lot of smartwatches or phones will just buzz or beep and tell you there's something you need to check out but we can generate a unique sensation that features the people in your contact list so you know when you're receiving a message or a call. The more times you receive a message from someone, the more familiar it will become, and the more intuitive grasp you'll have over what's coming in."

There are up to 1,000 different haptics that can be created by the app which are then transferred to the wearable so everyone you know, and then some, can each have their own type of buzz. Of course, you can preset tactile sensations for your contacts but Bala says it's not really necessary and that the team wanted to make the user experience feel as seamless as possible. "A lot of defaults don't require you to mess with the settings, but you can if you want," he said.

Moment CEO on reimagining wearables with advanced tactile sensations

Navigation is another big part of the Moment wearable. There's no GPS on board, but it takes the data from your phone and is able to provide turn-by-turn directions. Each turn is drawn on the wrist so you can "feel the sensation moving left or right" letting your know where to go and Bala says, "As you're driving it requires very little distraction from the road."

While notifications and navigation are the mainstay of Moment, there are several other uses as well including a metronome-esque feature for musicians. Instead of following along to a metronome though, the person would feel the beats on the wrist which Bala thinks is better since you can sense it rather than simply hearing it.

What's next for Moment

Moment CEO on reimagining wearables with advanced tactile sensations

The Moment wearable has officially opened its doors for crowdfunding pre-orders, and is already gaining traction.

The wearable promises a solid seven day battery life and charges via microUSB and the scratch-resistant module can be paired with any 22mm watch strap. It's not waterproof, though it is splash resistant which is unfortunate, however Bala says they're working on improving it for water. There are also LED lights on Moment but they've been included more as status indicators for the battery running low, whether the device is on or off and if it's connected to your phone.

I've yet to try Moment for myself since there are currently only 10 prototypes the company has for testing. It may also be a while before I get my hands on one since Moment launches in March 2017.

In the meantime, it sounds like a promising wearable that could very well end the horrible haptics most smartwatches and fitness trackers are plagued currently plagued with. When wearing faceless wearables, I usually find myself confused at why my wrist is endlessly buzzing (Did I reach a step goal? Is someone calling? What does it mean?!). It's better with wearables that have displays, but I'm open to the screenless option, after all, I'm stuck in front of one all day long already.

This seems to be a sentiment echoed by Bala and another reason why Somatic Labs is focusing on haptics.

"Starting from the earliest computers, we've been building smaller and smaller LCD screens but we haven't done anything that interacts with the sense of touch. That's the part that I think requires reimagining what's exactly possible.

"That's what we're trying to do - figuring out how we can communicate to people that there is an entire mode of interaction that's missing from their daily use of a computer or smartphone."

And though Moment isn't a smartwatch, it could take the form of a fitness tracker in the future. Bala says with the sensors on board, it's capable of much more but for now, we'll have to wait and see what he means when he says, "There's a lot more features we have planned that will be coming up soon."

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Lily is a writer and editor specializing in tech, video games, marketing, education, travel writing, and creative fiction. 

She has over 10 years of experience covering the technology beat.

Lily has a passion for VR and AR technologies and was associate wearables editor at TechRadar US, before joining Wareable as US editor in 2016.

Lily will graduate in 2023 with an MFA in Creative Writing.

In her spare time, Lily can be found knee-deep in zine collaborations, novel writing, playing Dungeons & Dragons or hiking and foraging for mushrooms.

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