Options and Futures    Stone

The stone

The stone's surface is caved such that it fits smoothly into your closed hand; it is something you might play with just because it fits you so well.  But the surface is actually a pressure­sensitive input/output device.  By pressing chords against the stone, you input; by feeling it press chords against your fingers, your decipher its output.  It has no other displays or visible keys, although you can hook it up to a regular personal computer.

The stone contains a small phone that links into the cellular network around it; it can broadcast and receive text messages.  Since there are no vibrations, no displays, and no sounds, the communication through the stone is completely unnoticeable; you can query a database, or chord down remarks, or exchange observations with someone else without anyone around you noticing.

Learning to use the stone isn't easy; its interface ``feels'' similar to a voice recorder, or to certain pieces of software for the blind.  It tends to lack context, and is better at linear forms.  But with its strange interface, it is a training tool for a whole new language of touch; people who use the stone can communicate just by chording words into each other's hands.

Clive Feather pointed out that there was a portable chord-entry device much like this, the ``microwriter'' (image, more detailed description), invented by Cy Endfield. Coming with a small display and real keys, it wasn't quite as purist as the stone above. It seems to be one of those forgotten gadgets; its users obviously loved it, but the company who produced it went out of business in 1992.

Other voices on haptic interfaces

Margaret Minsky keeps a Haptics Bibliography.

In a recent talk session at Club Wired, Bruce Tognazzini (Tog, as in ``Tog on Interfaces,'' ex-Apple, now Sun GUI bigwig) wrote:

``I tried an experimental force feedback device from MIT called PHANToM [sic] that allows you to not only see cyberspace, but to feel it. It eliminated that kind of mushy impression you get from virtual reality today.''
and later:
``Actually, the demo I used allowed me to penetrate human brain and gather a sample of a brain tumor. It was truly weird.
The MIT Haptic Interfaces group has more on the PHANToM. From the photograph, ``truly weird'' seems to be an appropriate description.

A little later, Tog ventures out even further:

`` A new card is about to come out or has come out recently for PCs that can gene smell. (Really.) Tactile feedback has been slow in coming, but it will get here. 3d sound still seems to be pretty compute-intensive. As computer gain in power, 3d sound will become easier.''
Assuming that ``gene'' stands for ``generate,'' 3D sound is the only one of these that I've seen demonstrated. Has the big T finally flipped?