If the thought of sifting through tons of online messages makes your skin crawl, Facebook’s latest project, once it launches, will soon turn that feeling into reality – literally.
The social media giant calls it the transcutaneous language communication (TLC) system, which works by transmitting either spoken or written language to a user’s arm. The prototype, which was recently presented in this year’s CHI conference in Montreal, looks like a cast at first glance: that is, of course, if your cast is filled with actuators that vibrate to match with certain sounds.
An average person may feel like he’s learning another language, but researchers insisted that it’s user-friendly. In a corresponding study, they claimed that users can build their own vocabulary in as little as five minutes after a demo, and preliminary tests have shown that participants were able to recognize a hundred words after an hour and a half of training.
The idea of using a person’s sense of touch to deliver messages has been around for a long time. The smartwatch, of course, has been doing it for a while now, using vibrations to notify a person of incoming messages. For Facebook’s TLC system, it takes its cues from Braille and Tadoma – a method of communication for deaf-blind people which places their hand on a speaker’s face to understand actions related to speech production – to deliver specific messages using vibrations. This allows a person to receive information without breaking away from other activities, and it could also be used so that people with hearing and vision impairments can receive information readily. The project has been brewing for a long time already: it was first announced in last year’s F8 developer conference, where the company’s highly secretive hardware division gave a sneak peek of the project.
Facebook also teamed up with researchers from Purdue College and the Massachusets Institute of Technology (MIT) to develop the most effective way to deliver signals using haptic technology and interpret it in an intuitive manner.
For lead professor Hong Tan, who is also the director of Purdue’s Haptic Interface Research Laboratory, the technology lends itself to a number of promising uses. “I’m really hoping this takes off as a general idea for a new way to communicate,” she added. “When that happens, the hearing-impaired, the visually-impaired, everyone can benefit.”
The team mapped the 39 phonemes – distinct units of sound in English that makes words unique – using signals from actuators attached in the cuff. Other sounds like consonants and vowels were also assigned specific vibrations against the skin. The results were positive, as most participants were able to learn phoneme-based symbols with 80 percent accuracy, with some even reaching 90 percent. Based on the findings, the researchers suggested that learning phonemes were an efficient method, as there are fewer phonemes in a word compared with the number of letters.
Despite its promise and appeal, the technology is still in its early stages, according to Lynette Jones, a senior research specialist at MIT. For one, she says that the skin doesn’t have the information-processing power that gives the eyes and the ears its distinct edge. At best, she thinks it could be used for when you need it.
It’s also in need of an upgrade for it to be faster. According to Ali Israr, the project’s technical lead, it’s one of the things that researchers are working on, aside from making it more compact. Currently, it can only transmit up to 10 words a minute – which only works for short text.
However, not everyone’s on board with the new developments pushed through by the social media giant – especially as some think that this takes intrusion to another level.
“This is a chilling insight into Facebook’s unstoppable desire to take over people’s minds and perhaps even their bodies,” explained Silkie Carlo, director of civil rights group Big Brother Watch, in an article in News.com.au. “This unbelievable proposal would be laughable were it not so dangerous.”
Of course, you don’t need to wait for skin-crawling technology to secure your online privacy: it only takes five minutes and it protects you from the prying eyes of big tech corporations like Facebook.
Learn more about Facebook and its founder, Mark Zuckerberg, by following MarkZuckerberg.news today.