How TapTap is turning the wearable into a new gesture-based user interface

A new wave of wearables is putting a lot of power on our wrists. Smart watches like the Galaxy Gear and Pebble put email, SMS and apps at the end of our arms, while new activity sensors like the Jawbone UP24 maps our movements throughout the day. But an emerging group of hardware startups sees another potential for the wristband.

Instead of displaying or recording information, the wrist wearable could be used as simple touch and motion interface that lets you interact with people, apps and objects. Instead of opening an app on your phone or smartwatch to send a quick message to your spouse or activate your stereo, why not just make a gesture with your finger or your wrist?

Woodenshark TapTap

Woodenshark is one such company, and it’s launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for a wristband called TapTap. The device has only one “button” — a capacitive sensor that is directly linked to another TapTap device through a Bluetooth connection to your phone and its mobile network connection. The idea is to create a bond over the ether between two people, so every tap on one wristband is felt by the other.

I’ll admit the marketing is a bit schmaltzy — creating a “secret language” between lovers and delivering a “remote hug” over the internet — but I find the idea of a tactile digital communications medium fascinating. We’ve come a long way in making our digital communications more personal through visual means — photo sharing and video chat — emulating touch seems like the next logical step in humanizing our long-distance interactions.

But in my mind the more interesting thing about TapTap is its ambition to use its touch and motion detection capabilities as an interface for objects and apps in the broader world. Woodenshark founder Mit Gorilovsky already has an impressive design credit to his name: he led the design of the YotaPhone, an Android device with a LED screen on one side and an e-ink display on the other. While the YotaPhone is intended for a very immersive experience, TapTap is design to be the opposite, Gorilovsky said; a way of casually interacting the world without screens, buttons, text or graphics, and without having to take anything out of your pocket.

A game controller for the physical world

Mit Gorolovsky, founder Woodenshark, TapTapYou can think of TapTap as a one-button joystick at the end of your arm, but as anyone who has ever played an arcade fighting game knows, you can perform a lot of different moves with a few simple controls. Gorilovsky and his team have isolated six distinct gestures that can be captured by TapTap’s accelerometer, gyroscope and capacitive sensors and mapped to specific actions. For instance, if a call comes in that you don’t want to answer, a double shake of the wrist could switch your phone to silent mode.

TapTap is exposing an API to third-party developers that would allow them to map their own gestures onto games — literally making the wristband a joystick — or apps that could benefit from a remote interface or its sensor data. TapTap is feeding its activity data into RunKeeper, and it’s working with another Kickstarter project called Shadow to help track a sleeper’s dream cycles.

Perhaps most interesting, however, is the testbed Gorilovsky has created in IFTTT, which links TapTap’s gestures to the company’s growing recipe library in the internet of things. If you’re in a camp mood, you could recreate that magical device of the 80s, the Clapper, using an IFTTT recipe linking TapTap’s clap gesture to a Philips Hue light bulb.

TapTap diagram

Woodenshark also has plans to incorporate taps into its interface. Right now any tap on the bracelet is almost immediately replicated on its twin, but Gorilovsky said its app could intercept certain sequences of taps and interpret them as commands. While most people aren’t going to tap out a text message using Morse code, tapping could easily be used to augment gesture commands. For instance, a swivel of your hand could turn on your connected stereo system, followed by the three taps on the wristband to select the third playlist in your library.

The growing interest in gestures

Gorilovsky has some very interesting ideas, and I’m eager to see if he can get TapTap off the ground (Woodenshark is trying to raise $130,000 to pay TapTap’s manufacturing costs — a pair of bracelets costs $130 with an expected delivery in April). But there also are a lot of other companies pursuing gesture-based technologies in a wristband form factor.

Tactilu and Indiegogo project Bond are taking a similar tap communications approach to mated wristbands. Meanwhile, venture-backed startup Thalmic Labs is grabbing a lot of attention with its Myo armband that actually measures muscle movements in your hand and arm. And we’re starting to see some of these technologies incorporated into popular consumer wearable devices. The new Jawbone UP24 integrates with IFTTT, letting your physical state dictate actions – when you wake up the lights come on. Jawbone isn’t supporting gesture-based controls yet, but it might be only a matter of time.