How our smartphones alert our senses

How our smartphones alert our senses - Lovefone, London

Smartphones are highly customizable. This is undoubtedly what we love about them most. We can make them look, sound, and do nearly anything we want them to. I remember when I got my first cell phone as a teenager, and after an hour of consideration, I finally settled on a jaunty Jamaican beat. These choices can tell us a lot about who we are and what we want out of our phone. While modern science contradicts what we all learned as children, we have, in fact, more than five senses, counting more nuanced human perception through senses like proprioception (knowing where your body parts are relative to each other) and equilibrioception (your sense of balance), just to name a couple. The reason the five senses caught on, though, was that they are our five senses most easily triggered by the outside world. This is why the five senses are the main ways our technology tries to alert us.

Touch: vibration notification

The classic setting for when you want to be alerted, but are trying to quietly respect others (whether you're in class, church, a movie theater or wherever). Although, let's be honest. If we have hearing capabilities, we can hear the buzz of a phone on vibrate. It's no coincidence that a vibrating phone is the second most addicting sound in the world (number one is a giggling baby, incidentally). Some speculate that pure, uncut giggling baby goes for as much as $1,000 a gram on the black market.

Seriously though, there is mounting scientific evidence about the drug-like addictiveness of different types of messaging notifications. Students at the National University of Singapore conducted a study on various vibrate settings on cell phones and how they affected perceived urgency in the user. They found that messages that used a vibration pattern with short buzzes combined with a shorter gap between pulses brought about more feelings of urgency and anxiety in the user than those with longer pulses and gaps. Our buzzing phones have so pervaded our lives today that psychologists have found that Phantom Vibration Syndrome (the sensation that our phone may be buzzing, even when it isn't) is actually a real thing, and affects nearly ninety percent of undergraduate college students.

Sound: ringtones

Sound alerts seem to fall into two general categories. The first is ringtones, brief snippets of a favorite song downloaded from the internet on your smartphone, or a musical interlude preloaded on your smartphone. The second is the realm of random noises and sounds. These can be simple like a tinkling bell, nostalgic like the ringing of a vintage landline, or ridiculous like the alert of that friend whose phone is programmed to make the sound of a braying horse every time her mother calls.

Sight: flashing lights

There is also an option that produces flashes of light to alert that you have a notification. Sadly, these are some of the only options currently available for people who are deaf or hard of hearing, if their phone isn't right in their pocket. Though it's worth knowing that while the iPhone 4 got very low ratings for radio frequency interference with hearing aids, that flaw seems to have been addressed in the design of the iPhone 5 and iPhone 6 which both rated highly. Flash alerts can be used by anyone and can be used with or without an accompanying sound. The resulting LED flash is like a small series of short blips of light lasting a few seconds. On iOS, you can find these settings under General settings and Accessibility.

Smell and taste?

Although smartphone technology is potentially limited, I will be the first in line if phones are ever developed with a brief chocolate taste notifying a user of an incoming message. One Japanese manufacturer has a gimmicky sort of add-on device that works with an app called Scentee that attempts to make this a reality.

While there don’t yet seem any manufacturers interested in making your taste buds a part of your smartphone’s sensory notification, I have to admit, I’m not sure if the world is ready to trust tastes and texts sent from their friends, let alone strangers.

Author: Rae Avery

February 17, 2016