As part of Facebook's ongoing quest to be first to capitalize on The Next Big Thing in Technology (whatever it turns out to be), the social media juggernaut has written a check for some Purdue College research into haptic technology that can not only alert you to new messages through your skin, but read them too.

"I'm excited about this," lead researcher Hong Tan says in a Purdue press release. "Imagine a future where you're able to wear a sleeve that discreetly sends messages to you – through your skin – in times when it may be inconvenient to look at a text message."

Before we panic too much about invasive implants, at this point the research uses a wearable cuff which wraps around the wearer's entire forearm. The wearable includes 24 vibrating devices which can alter the location and intensity of the alert. The researchers call these vibrating devices "tactors," but strictly speaking, a tactor is a touch sensor rather than an emitter.

It's this variety in the vibrations that allows the technology to relay message content. The researchers have mapped all 39 phonemes of the English language to different vibrations, phonemes being the audible sounds that make up spoken words. The researchers differentiated consonants from vowels by keeping them static, while vowel sensations move in varying directions.

The research was geared towards the ease of learning using two different approaches: one based on phonemes and the other on letters. Twelve participants were asked to learn 100 words in 100 minutes. Though results varied significantly, with both methods some users achieved an accuracy of over 90 percent. However, the researchers found that phonemes proved easier to learn. Tan points out that the typical word contains fewer phonemes than letters.

The researchers worked out a training schedule of 10 minutes a day which they think would be practical for most users. "It is more efficient than if they sit here for three hours to study," Tan reasons. "You can't keep good concentration for that long."

Clearly, any technology that can relay messages through touch could prove relevant to people with impairments to seeing and hearing, but the potential applications are much broader – from receiving messages on the go, or where message privacy is a cause for concern.

Along with Purdue's researchers, the team included others from MIT and Facebook itself.

"I'm really hoping this takes off as a general idea for a new way to communicate," Tan adds. "When that happens, the hearing-impaired, the visually-impaired, everyone can benefit."

The team's work was presented on June 15 the Proceedings of EuroHaptics 2018 conference in Italy.

The research was previously mentioned at Facebook's F8 development conference last year, along with a brain-typing technology purportedly five times faster than using a keyboard. Facebook's purchase of Oculus sees the company also plowing funds into virtual and augmented reality research. Clearly the company wants to be well positioned if (or when) its social network fizzles out.