Nokia's unbelievably cool, unbelievably bad idea: the phone-ringing vibrating tattoo

Magnetic ink ensures you'll always feel your phone ring, long after you wish you couldn't

There are some ideas – especially in the tech world – that are so unbelievably cool it's impossible to ignore them even though the ideas themselves are so unbelievably bad it's impossible to believe anyone would ever try to use one.

Nokia has just promoted itself to the top of that pile by patenting a new technique that could make it far simpler to use your mobile phone on the move, as long as you choose only the version with the much shorter life expectancy.

I can't believe it took five days for this to work its way up through the datasphere, but Unwired View ran a piece March 15 exposing Nokia's application for patents on tattoos that provide haptic feedback for cell phones.

Rather than leave your phone in your pocket and hope you notice it vibrating when a call comes in, Nokia is trying to patent a method of using magnetic ink that, when injected under the skin in an aesthetically pleasing pattern, make your tattoo vibrate when the phone rings.

The ferromagnetic ink is designed to vibrate in response to a magnetic field, but can be implemented in a way that would let it respond only to specific magnetic fields or signals.

<(a href="http://www.patexia.com/feed/ferrofluid-tattoos-vibrate-your-skin-in-response-to-calls-and-texts-3400" target="_blank">Yes, it's possible; no, it's not a good idea.)

Paired with a phone or other device in the same way a Bluetooth headset would be, the tattoo would become a ringer that would almost certainly get the attention of anyone owning one and would never be left behind or forgotten.

Of course, it would also not be flawless. It would inevitably responde erroneously to magnetic fields from other people's phones, at least occasionally, as well as magnetic fields from other sources.

The urban myth that tattoo ink already contains enough metal that they become excruciatingly hot or actually are pulled through the skin when their owners go into the powerful magnetic field of an MRI imaging machine, for example (the myth is false), has a much higher chance of actually happening if the tattoo is as much gadget as sketch.

It would be possible to pair the tat with more than one device, so you wouldn't have to have it removed and get another inscribed every time you replace your phone.

That would give it a somewhat longer life span than if it worked only with current generation of cell phones.

But tattoos hang around far longer than even major iterations of mobile communications technology.

A geek who got a Nokia tat at age 30 might find, at age 50, that the ink is ugly, doesn't work with the newest phones and, even if it did, would be a complete drag compared to the groovy disco lights that flash in his or her mobile-phone/contact lens to identify a caller.

The second method Nokia proposes is less attention-grabbing but much more acceptable: The ink and function are all the same, but the image is drawn on a sticker that can be worn on the body part and for the length of time the user wants. No long-term commitments for a short-term phone contract.

Putting the image on stickers may be less effective. Ink on the outside of a sticker would be insulated to some degree from the skin and – no matter how smart – ink can vibrate only so far without mechanical help from outside.

Both the tattoos and the stickers are only drawings in a patent application right now. There's no indication Nokia has any imminent plans to offer them as products, even assuming the ink could pass medical testing requirements.

The stickers are far more likely to be marketable, anyway. They would allow users to change the image once in a while, at least.

And they'd let users avoid being stuck for years with a product that no longer does what they want but which refuses to die so it can be replaced with something less ugly, clunky and useless.

Of course, so many current customers use that complaint right now about Nokia's phones that the company may think anything likely to create the same response demonstrates consistency and good customer support.

It, and 50 years of being stuck with the same phone-answering tattoo, actually show how easy it is to get stuck one technology far longer than its users want to own or even see it, let alone walk around with it inscribed under their skin.

Read more of Kevin Fogarty's CoreIT blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Follow Kevin on Twitter at @KevinFogarty. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

What’s wrong? The new clean desk test
Join the discussion
Be the first to comment on this article. Our Commenting Policies