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I Just Listened to the Future Through My Finger

A man listening to his finger.
Not going to snark, this was pretty cool.
Sgnl

LAS VEGAS—If you’ve ever stood next to the sound system at a big concert, you’ve felt the vibrations of the music coming through the speakers. The more a speaker vibrates, the louder the sound that it pumps out.

When you can see and feel sound vibrating, the result is a sensory experience that feels like you’re literally awash in sound—but unless you have a gym-size living room, you’re probably not listening this way at home. At CES this year, there are a number of products on display hoping to change that by distributing the audio you usually just consume with your ears to the rest of your body.

Take the Aurasens chair I sat in on Sunday night at the CES Unveiled event. It’s a supercomfortable lounge chair that vibrates and pulsates to music, providing the listener with a full-body sound experience that moves with the music coming through its headphones. It’s not that you can hear the music with your body, of course, but you can feel it, and it’s pretty wild. As I sat there, I felt completely immersed in the spacy instrumental music provided but not necessarily in a comfortable way. At times, it felt like I was sitting on a washing machine or, worse, on a gross, inappropriate sex toy, at which point I wanted to leave immediately. Although the vibrations and pulses were aligned seamlessly with the music, right now the chair only has 15 songs it moves to. If you were hoping to zone out to Dark Side of the Moon in this thing, no dice.

Aurasens calls its technology haptic, which is just a fancy way to say it involves touch. Strolling through the exhibitor space, it didn’t take long to stumble on other bizarre body-interacting audio inventions. The coolest, by far, was the Sgnl wristband, which connects to your phone via Bluetooth and then, when you touch your ear with your finger, lets you hear the call. In other words, your finger becomes the phone receiver, no headphones required. The vibrations of the audio travel up your wrist to your finger. And unlike many of the imaginative futuristic gadgets that litter CES, this one actually works, and the sound quality is pretty decent.

These aren’t the only gadgets out there attempting to bring sound to and through the body. At Facebook’s annual developer conference last year, the social media giant shared that it’s working on a listening device that lets you hear through your skin. The tech, according to Facebook, is supposed to act like the cochlea in the ear, which translates sound frequencies that are sent to the brain. But instead of going through your ear, the sound will apparently travel through your skin.

There’s also the Subpac, which is a haptic audio backpack that uses vibrational feedback to push sound through your body to make it feel like you’re at a loud concert without increasing the volume. It gives the sensation of sound, not only by vibrating on the skin’s surface but also by pulsating sound waves that travel through bones into the inner ear, which according to Subpac, it senses as audio.

Unlike Facebook’s skin listening, Sgnl’s finger speaker, and Aurasens’ musical chair, Subpac actually has a product that you can buy now. But still, I was able to put my finger to my ear and hear my phone on Sunday, and it was probably the most futuristic I’ve ever felt.

Read more of Slate’s coverage of CES 2018.

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Illustration depicting a colorful group of people using an array of mobile devices