Building a Wearable

A long time ago an ex-girlfriend and I tried to learn morse code so we could have side-conversations while holding hands in public. Turns out I’m not good at that kind of signal processing task, but the idea of micro-languages stuck with me. Maybe one hand squeeze means “let’s begin a conversation”, two means “I need a stronger drink”, and three says “let’s bail on this party”.

Imagine a wristband with three buttons on it — no screen or other distractions, just a vibration motor for haptic feedback. Pair it to your phone, and have your partner do the same with theirs. When you press button #1, their wrist vibrates. That’s it. Give another one to your BFF and save button #3 for Mom.

Three buttons and some bluetooth hardware

With the help of my friend (and uncommon genius) John Boiles, we put together a pair of prototypes. It was fun deep dive in to the world of embedded microcontrollers, bluetooth stacks, and physical product design. I just about destroyed my sewing machine trying to build neoprene wristbands to house them. Ultimately, the cost of manufacturing made it difficult to make a business case for it, but we learned a ton in the process.

One of those things was that the gentlest, most unobtrusive notification from the right person will get you to drop everything and pay attention. Our phones are so intimate — going literally everywhere with us—and so universally connected that it’s easy to lose track of the signal in the noise of everyday communications. It’s incumbent on applications to get much smarter about those small, subtle cues and leave the sea of distractions behind.

It may be ugly, but I did learn how to sew and attach snaps to neoprene.

Published 20 Dec 2016