How Do I Love Thee? Let Me Tap the Ways

Xconomy Boston — 

These days you can post updates about your life on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and many other social media sites. You can send e-mails for private or targeted messages. You can text someone if it’s urgent (God forbid you actually talk to them). Indeed, we seem better connected to people we care about than ever before.

But we aren’t, really. How else to explain the existence of something like Magnet?

Magnet is a contradiction. It’s a wearable device, but it doesn’t track you or monitor your health. It’s for communication, but doesn’t really convey messages. It’s designed for mass consumption, but is likely to be sold only two at a time.

The device is meant to connect pairs of people—a long-distance couple, say, or a parent and a child who’s going off to camp. You and your Magnet twin each wear a special bracelet or pendant. When you tap yours, the other person’s device vibrates and its LEDs light up in the pattern you just tapped. Each Magnet connects to a smartphone and mobile app via a low-energy Bluetooth link; the company mines the data for time-of-day patterns but doesn’t keep track of user-level information.

It all sounds simple and maybe a bit frivolous—and that’s the point.

The goal is to help people stay in touch with a loved one by conveying emotions in a new way, says Magnet co-founder Harish Kamath. Fast tapping might signify excitement or happiness, for instance. A slow gentle tap, sadness.

Having a dedicated device is key to this approach. “People associate meaning with objects,” Kamath says. “It’s good to have this extra, undiluted channel.”

What he means is that people are barraged by so many types of communication on apps and devices, they want a separate way of connecting with that special someone. Kamath and co-founder Alex List were originally inspired by something List brought back from a hackathon: a $4 bracelet that glowed when you tapped on it.

After about a year of work, Magnet went through this fall’s Techstars Boston accelerator session and is now running a crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter. The Boston startup is also in the process of equity fundraising, and is looking to form partnerships with manufacturers and jewelry makers. It plans to ship its devices in the next few months, with a retail price of under $200 a pair.

The hardware behind Magnet is designed to convey emotions at a distance. (Image: Magnet)

The hardware behind Magnet is designed to convey emotions at a distance. (Image: Magnet)

Kamath says he uses Magnet to communicate with his fiancée on a daily basis—a quick tap on the way to the train station, another check-in during a coffee break (she’ll tap back). When he’s running late or is expected at home, he might receive more taps from her.

Sounds like it could become intrusive or annoying over time? Not really, Kamath insists. “From the beginning, we wanted to keep it really simple,” he says. “It should be low cognitive overhead.”

In addition to couples, Kamath says, Magnet’s potential users include parents and their kids, soldiers deployed overseas, deaf people, and even entrepreneurs who want to be able to nudge their co-founder during the workday (OK, that does sound annoying).

Magnet might be more interesting as a social-tech commentary than as a business, at this stage. There is clearly a subset of people who feel that technology has made them less connected; witness the spate of recent books on the decline of thinking and interacting face-to-face in the digital age. Think of all the dating apps and social networks that connect you to people you don’t really know, versus how few technologies enhance the important relationships you already have. Magnet represents an effort to use wireless technology in an alternative way that promotes connections more exclusively.

The startup also hints at a future in which emotional or “affective” computing is more commonplace; that is, devices and software could operate in ways that are better connected to how people feel. Magnet’s underlying philosophy is that a combination of devices or sensors (“multimodal” inputs, in AI-speak) can provide a richer picture of a person’s emotional state.

In Kamath’s vision of five to 10 years from now, you could say “I love you,” and through wireless technology “the person on the other side, in a tangible way, could feel it.” He adds, “We should be able to convey that emotion. It has to be simple in the way the user perceives it. The complexity has to be hidden in what we do.” What’s more, “it should be the human being in the driver’s seat,” he says, “not replacing the human with the machine.”

As for humans, well, they are Magnet’s customers after all. So far, the response from consumers has been encouraging but mixed.

“Either they get it or they don’t,” Kamath says. “It’s very binary.”