Tactile Messaging: The Next Arms Race in the Tech World


Thanks to modern technology, we can remain connected no matter where we are. Smartphones, tablets, smartwatches, and even computers allow us to communicate with one another, be it through an instant messaging service or via a live, direct video feed. It’s certainly reassuring that no matter where you are, or how far you are, you can always connect to others in just a few seconds.

And yet, there’s something very cold and inhuman about sending a text message or IM to a friend or family member. Even though modern devices and technology make it so much easier for us to remain in contact, it’s like it instead causes us to lose touch with each other. People point out how ridiculous it is that a lot of couples go out to dinner, sit in a booth together and just play with their phones the whole time in silence.

What if there was a way to make interacting with technology—and with each other—more personal? Imagine, if you will, that you could send a text message to someone that gives off emotion. Could something like that be possible?

A New Jersey-based startup company Tactonics thinks so. They’ve created a series of hardware peripherals designed to offer a more tactile form of messaging. Through a combination of vibrations, multi-colored illuminations, and hot/cold stimulation, the platform will allow users to send “sensory messages” to one another. Tactonics even went so far as to say that they might eventually allow you to take advantage of the sense of smell. Yes, theoretically, that means you could send different scents to friends and family. Use this power wisely.

These third party components could be embedded inside existing devices like a smartphone, tablet, or piece of jewelry. They could also be used as a companion, pairing up with a smartphone through Bluetooth.

Tactonics calls their Bluetooth-enabled device a TactPuck, which seems fitting, since it’s about the size of a coin. The TactPuck pairs directly with a smartphone app called TactSpace, and can be controlled remotely. Once it’s all set up, users can remotely send “sensory messages,” or what the company calls “tacts,” from the app to the device.

Tactonics shared this vision as an example:


“For Valentine’s Day, a young man gives his girlfriend a beautiful, heart-shaped pendant necklace, equipped with a Tactonics Sensory Messaging Insert, or TactPuck. She loves it and she loves him. As they go about their lives, he often wants his love to know that he’s thinking about her,” the example continues. “He pulls out his cellphone, opens the TactSpace app and sends her a message. But she doesn’t get it on her phone. Instead, that pendant necklace begins pulsing in a heartbeat sensation. She feels it against her skin, instantly and discreetly. She senses that he loves her. It’s more personal than other forms of communication. It’s more human. It’s tactile.”

Just imagine the implications for technology like this. Besides the obvious comical and sexual uses for it, there are certainly quite a few practical applications. A husband could briefly tell his wife he’s on his way home from work by remotely illuminating the TactPuck she has embedded in a pendant. Two friends could ping one another as they pass by during a cardio workout or run.

So what about the competition?

One of the marquee features of the Apple Watch is its ability to send tactile communications—heartbeats, mostly, at least for the time being—between users. I wrote it off as a gimmick, but the truth is that this is a very promising idea, albeit one that’s still very much in its infancy. If Tactonics could truly include the kind of sensory triggers they promise in this hardware, it could turn out to be remarkable, and it may even upstage Apple.

Tactonics believes that, while some messages will be universal and pre-programmed for everyone, others can be unique to both the sender and receiver. The hardware will allow for users to create their own “tacts,” or “sensory messages,” to send each other. For instance, blinking a red LED three times could be used to signal anger for one user, while the same output could mean “I love you” for another. Better yet, you could use the TactPuck to communicate a whole range of emotions like sorrow, pain, anger, or even excitement.

There’s little doubt that this could be a valuable addition to our existing stable of communication methods. Alongside better-known tech like the Oculus Rift and other VR devices, we’re taking small but definitive steps toward true virtual reality, which could change our perception of geographical barriers for good.

The only question left is whether the novelty of the experience has staying power, or if this purported revolution will be over as soon as it starts.

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