Editor’s note: Dan Kaplan helps startups tell their stories. He blogs about marketing, storytelling, and growth at Threadling and is preparing to launch Dispatches From The Future, a podcast about the future of humanity.
The world around us is screaming with signals our original five senses don’t detect. Unlike some snakes, we can’t sense infrared with our naked eyes and unlike ducks and geese, we don’t have a native intuition for magnetic fields. But we’ve got pretty incredible brains, which we’ve used to craft ways to augment our five basic senses for a very long time.
While you could argue that this process goes back to the creation of language, it started getting serious with the adoption of the compass for navigation by China’s Song Dynasty in the 11th Century. With this breakthrough, humans could suddenly compensate for their lack of innate magnetic sensitivity with a piece of technology. For the first time, our species could leverage the Earth’s magnetic fields and use them to help us be better at life.
The development of extra-sensory devices accelerated after the scientific revolution and took off with the discovery of electromagnetic waves and the subsequent development of radio. With radio, not only did we figure out how to broadcast electromagnetic frequencies, we built the technology necessary to manipulate them as sound.
But the first massive step towards the development of an external sixth sense in humans happened in 2007, when Steve Jobs got on stage at Macworld and ushered in the modern smartphone era.
Combine the smartphone’s core capabilities with push notifications, the right dataset, and the software necessary to turn raw data into useful information in real time, and that becomes the recipe for a powerful sixth sense.
Think of it as a richer ambient awareness of the world, mediated by the Internet and a smart device. In other words, your phone + the Internet + the right software work together to “sense” the data permeating your environment and deliver this data to you as information with a push notification. The result is a vibration you feel or an auditory alert you hear. To make this concrete, consider Foursquare, Facebook and Google Now.
Foursquare, Facebook’s Nearby Friends, and Google Now
The Foursquare check-in. For all of its long-standing struggles for stickiness among consumers, Foursquare has used check-ins to build the world’s richest, more accurate online database of physical locations. When you sign up for the latest version of the app, Foursquare also encourages you to give it data about your favorite foods and activities.
This way, when you venture near a restaurant that serves your preferred foods, a bar that specializes in your favorite cocktails, or any other real-world location that offers something you’d probably enjoy, Foursquare sends you a push notification to let you know.
To pull this off, Foursquare combines its databases, GPS info coming from your phone, and its unique algorithms to tell you things you might not know about the world around you. It does all of this in real time without you having to ask.
The result is a digitally enhanced sense of the brick-and-mortar world.
Facebook’s Nearby Friends senses our social environment. Though there are weaknesses in Facebook’s data and current algorithms that limit the feature’s utility, Nearby Friends is a concept with potential: If Facebook had a better understanding of our relationships, it could tell us when our close friends were nearby and what they’re up to at the time.
It would get really interesting (and a lot more intrusive) if Facebook figured out how to notify us of interesting people around that we didn’t know but would likely benefit from meeting.
The result is a digitally enhanced sense of our social environment.
Google Now senses everything else. If you use Google’s services to power most of your digital life, Google Now mines your calendar, your email, your location, your search history, and the time of day to give you all sorts of useful notifications about your world.
Got an upcoming meeting and traffic conditions get worse before you’re planning to leave? Here’s a notification to leave now. Did a package you ordered just go out for delivery? Here’s a notification to let you know when to expect it.
Depending on your perspective on Google’s intentions, you might consider this kind of proactive analysis of your life downright creepy. If it weren’t so damn useful, you might even get mad.
Smartphone Push Notifications Are Still Primitive
As anyone in a relationship with someone who can’t stop checking their phone will tell you, smartphone notifications are a nuisance. A plague, even. This is partly due to the fact that most push notifications were designed explicitly to pull you away from whatever you’re doing for the purpose of advancing some form of corporate interest: “Buy this! Come back to our app! Check out our latest virtual sword!”
Indeed, far from being useful, many (if not most), push notifications actually harm us, hooking us on our own dopamine and making us less present and aware of the moments of life passing us by.
There is a world where push notifications actually help us live better lives, but we’re not living in it yet. This all begins to change with the Apple Watch, and its breakthrough “taptic engine.” In case you’re unfamiliar with the concept of the “taptic engine,” it is the feature of the Apple Watch that taps you on the wrist when a notification comes in.
Despite its clunky, overly technical name, the taptic engine is what sets the Apple Watch apart. Without the taptic engine, the Apple Watch is just a beautiful digital trinket. With it, however, the device becomes much more.
The Breakthrough Taptic Engine
Because you are wearing the Apple Watch on your body versus carrying it around, the connection its taptic engine creates between your mind and the information from push notifications is dramatically more direct and intimate: Instead of a vibration in your pocket or a distracting auditory alert from your purse, you get a subtle touch on the wrist.
Think about this for a minute: A device on your wrist is using a wide range of online datasets and your sense of touch to notify you in real time of things you might otherwise not perceive.
The Apple Watch can analyze data from its clock and its accelerometer to tell you when you’ve been sitting too long. With a little help from another wearable like the Spire or the Lumo Lift, it can tell you when your breathing patterns are showing signs of stress or your posture is off.
Some of this information just helps you be healthier. Some of it is life and death. If you’re diabetic, for example, you can use the Apple Watch with a wearable glucose monitor and get notified of any worrying trends in your blood sugar levels throughout the day.
These taptic notifications get even more interesting when third parties with access to unique datasets start exploiting their potential.
Imagine you’re in a new neighborhood in Kansas City and it’s lunchtime. As you’re walking around, Apple Watch taps you to recommend a nearby restaurant that is renowned for its ribs. As you walk out satisfied with your meal, you get another tap. A good friend is at a coffee shop down the road. You tap your watch and his watch taps him to let him know you’re around.
As you and your friend meander, the Dark Sky app taps you to tell you that hard rain is imminent. As you consider heading inside, you get a quick set of urgent taps from the National Weather Service. You turn your wrist and glance down to see that a tornado warning is in effect for the next two hours.
You get the idea.
The downside, as both Farhad Manjoo at the New York Times and Steven Levy at BackChannel have pointed out, is that the Apple Watch opens the floodgates to a never-ending series of taps making insistent demands on your already-overstretched attention.
But with some smart, mindful tweaks, you can set up your budding sixth sense to provide useful information instead of meaningless distractions: your Lyft is about to arrive; your heart rate is abnormally fast; your breathing patterns indicate anxiety; you need to take a break and breathe some slow, deep breaths.
From the Apple Watch To Homo Sapiens 2.0
While the road to the future for humankind is uncertain and full of pitfalls, one things seems likely. If we navigate the next few decades without blowing everything up, our species is set to evolve.
Some forecasters think that this evolution will come in the form of a conscious artificial intelligence. I believe that our technology will steadily flow into our biology, and the next generation of humans will be a deeply integrated nexus of man and machine.
Along that trajectory, a lot of incredible things will have to go down first, but they are already starting to happen. Eventually, our bodies and minds will be awash with hardware and software that connect us more deeply with the digital world.
By the time that happens, the Apple Watch and its breakthrough taptic engine will be a distant memory, like the early computers of Bletchley Park are today.
But when they look back and talk about how we got from here to there, the Apple Watch and all of its adjacent applications and enabling technologies will be considered a crucial early step.
As the Apple Watch, itself, demonstrates, an innate, digitally enabled sixth sense in humans is only a matter of time.