What The Hell Are Those Playable Sound Wave Tattoos, And Are They Legit?

If you spent any amount of time on Facebook in 2017, you probably ran into dozens of viral videos from pages with names like ShareHog and WHOAH THAT’S COOL showing off a fairly cool, futuristic concept: tattoos you can hear. A company called Skin Motion promotes a system which allows you to tattoo a waveform of your favourite audio onto your skin, which can then be read by their app. It looks pretty sweet:


The company’s product has picked up a bit of steam again over the past few days after a Twitter user went viral for tattooing the audio of her late grandmother’s last voicemail message onto her chest. The video is pretty impressive, and it led to many Twitter users wondering how they can get in on this. Perfect marketing!

Skin Motion stresses on their site that the waveform needs to be precisely tattooed, and to that end they provide a list of ‘certified’ tattoo artists who can do it for you. Three of them are in Australia: one in Newcastle, one in Melbourne and one in Adelaide. Here’s how it works: you send an audio file to Skin Motion through the app, they provide you with a waveform image which you take to the certified artist, and then you upload an image of the tattoo back into the app.

Hey presto! Whenever you want to impress someone at a party, you just need to whip your phone out, boot up the Skin Motion app, and play back the recording of Limp Bizkit‘s Rollin’ which you had permanently tattooed onto your body.

So is it legit? Is the app literally magically playing back the waveform from your very skin, like in a particularly shitty episode of Black Mirror? Not exactly, no. This is how the Skim Motion says their system works:

A combination of audio processing, image recognition, computer vision, and cloud computing to create a mixed reality experience.

Basically, this is startup speak for “it’s mostly just image recognition, really”. The fact of the matter is that this is more or less a glorified QR code scanner – Skin Motion keeps a image of the waveform on its servers which is associated with the audio you already uploaded, and it plays back that same audio when you point the camera at the tattoo, which it recognises as a unique image like a QR code. It’s not actually ‘playing back’ the waveform, which would be impossible.

It’s still reasonably cool, obviously. But it’s worth remembering that the functionality of your brand new waveform tattoo is entirely locked to Skin Motion. If the company folds – as many startups with such a niche focus inevitably do – then you’re shit outta luck. You’ve just got a useless waveform tattooed onto your body, making you equivalent to those weirdos who get barcodes tattooed on them because they think they’re Banksy.

Skin Motion’s FAQ addresses this problem… kinda:

Our patent pending platform is built using Google Cloud Platform and engineered with modular components so that everything is interchangeable. The frequency that new api’s, frameworks, codecs and devices are coming out means that by preserving our users’ data, we will be able to deliver it through the most advanced distribution channels and interfaces as augmented reality technology advances.

That does not really mean a whole lot. The fact remains that if the company goes, you probably won’t be able to listen to your tat. Also, uploading your waveform and audio costs a flat fee of US$39.99, and then US$9.99 a year thereafter. Stop paying, and it stops working.

Hey, you might not care about all this – and it’s a very cool party trick anyway. And Lord knows there are much worse tattoos than a waveform floating around, and the waveform itself might still hold significant value for you regardless of whether or not you can play it back through an app. Ink whatever the fuck you like on your body.

Just be aware that there’s a little bit more going on than some pure app magic.

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