Finger Phones: An Earful of an Invention

Masaaki Fukumoto, a 36-year-old senior research engineer at NTT DoCoMo's Media Computing Lab, got the idea during a conference on wearable computers in 1997. The device he invented soon after is a wearable wireless phone that consists only of a wristband. The band houses a tiny microphone, plus a device that converts audio signals into vibrations. To hear incoming calls, the wearer puts a finger in one ear. The caller's voice is converted to vibrations, which travel through the hand, the finger and into the ear canal. The wearer talks back via the wristband's microphone.

That's not the only sleight of hand necessary. To answer the phone, called Whisper because incoming calls cause the wristband to vibrate, the wearer taps their thumb and index finger together. No buttons to press, no keypad to control. Fukumoto says users can send multiple commands to the wristband by tapping their fingers in various rhythms. Fukumoto also plans to add voice recognition to the system for vocal commands.

Demos of the prototype work well, but there are obstacles to Whisper ever becoming a product. "In Japan or the US, people are not willing to wear wearable devices," Fukumoto says. "The only gadget that people allow themselves to wear today is a wristwatch."

He hopes that Whisper would come to market by 2005. Meanwhile, NTT DoCoMo continues to fund the project, Fukumoto said. He's gotten at least "several hundred thousand dollars" but won't be more specific.

"Sooner or later, wireless phones will look more like earplugs, and people will wear them," Fukumoto says. "We just have to establish a culture that registers an idea with people that wearing a device is a cool thing."

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