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A Needham company is applying the right ‘touch’ to NFTs

A screenshot of the Haptagram application.Haptagram

Touch has proven a tough sensation to integrate into our technological devices.

Yes, a mobile phone can vibrate to let you know a text message has arrived. But Steven Domenikos thinks we ought to feel more. If you’re shopping for a sofa online, shouldn’t you be able to virtually run your fingers over the chenille upholstery?

When last I encountered Domenikos, five years ago, he was trying to design an electronic device called TactaiTouch that would attach to your index finger and use small vibrations to simulate the feeling of different objects that you might encounter or “pick up” while wearing a virtual reality headset. He was also trying to pitch bigger tech companies on the idea of incorporating touch into their devices.

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But while Tactai still exists ― having attracted more than $1 million in grant money from the National Science Foundation ― the business never really took off. The challenges of trying to persuade someone else to integrate your technology, and then bring new devices to market, “takes forever,” Domenikos says.

His new venture, Needham-based Haptagram, seeks to take advantage of the fact that the tiny motor that creates vibrations inside most smartphones of recent vintage “has basically reached a level of fidelity” that allows you to simulate “a heartbeat or the crackling of a fire,” Domenikos says, without requiring accessories or attachments.

When you download Haptagram’s app, available for iPhone and Android operating systems, that’s basically what you get: photos of people and things, accompanied by sounds and different patterns of vibration. It’s a nifty novelty. A photograph of a coffee cup, accompanied by the sounds of a bustling café, can dupe you into thinking that you’re holding a cup while the liquid is being poured. A nighttime image of a fireworks display over Singapore lets you hear and feel the pops of shells bursting in the air. A photo of a Harley-Davidson bike is accompanied by the rumble of the engine starting. And it all leverages a motor that’s already built into phones.

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You could imagine Haptagram saying to Harley, “This will help you sell more motorcycles,” or to the Four Seasons, “Let us add a sense of touch to your images of the beach on Maui, so prospective visitors can feel the surf before they book.” But that’s not (yet) part of the company’s plan.

Instead, it wants to sell these “haptagrams” — an image accompanied by sound and vibration — as NFTs. NFTs, or non-fungible tokens, are digital items that are rendered one-of-a-kind because they are registered in a digital ledger.

You may have read recently about artists like Beeple and Pak selling NFTs for north of $50 million. The NBA also sells game highlights as NFTs, called NBA Top Shots, and some of those have sold for more than $100,000.

Could the same thing happen to haptagrams? Domenikos hopes so, and the company is already encouraging artists and musicians to make and sell them through its app. Early this year, Haptagram plans to release a set of tools so anyone can make their own touch-enabled haptagrams, which would be experienced through its app.

“You could sell it, or give it away for free,” Domenikos says. The business model involves charging a bidding fee (currently about $10) when you decide to place a bid for a haptagram and also taking a 6 percent cut of every transaction.

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One of the people creating haptagrams is singer-songwriter Wendy Starland, who was involved with helping to launch Lady Gaga’s career. (She’s currently linking to Haptagram’s site from her Instagram profile.) Another is Bryce Xavier, a musician based in Van Nuys, Calif., who has more than 3 million followers on the social media app TikTok. His haptagram features a black-and-white photo of him, shirtless and slightly moist. When touched, it plays a piece of his song “Beautifully Tragic.” Touch his chest, and you’ll hear a heartbeat.

Xavier says he’d been learning about cryptocurrency and NFTs and had purchased a few NFTs created by his friends. The haptagram, he says, “is my first experience releasing my own.” He likes the fact that “it’s interactive — people can feel they’re part of something, versus just seeing something on a screen.” He says that creating the limited edition of 50 NFTs — 10 have been auctioned off through the company’s app so far — “was a fun project to put out. I put it out in the world because I love it. But between me and you, I know it’s going to do good.”

Domenikos says that the NFT auctions the company have run so far have had starting prices of $50, and the first few that have sold were only bid up to “between $50 to $60. These were sold without any promotion, to unknown-to-us people.” Though his website lists a bidder on one of the early auctions as “S****n,” Domenikos says that that bidder is not him, but perhaps a different Steven.

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I wanted to better understand what exactly is going on in this nascent market for touch-enabled NFTs, so I called Drake Danner, a senior analyst who works for Flipside Crypto, a Boston company that collects data on the world of cryptocurrencies and NFTs.

Danner says he hadn’t seen anyone yet offering NFTs with a sense of touch, a feature he called “interesting.” But he said the market “has been getting more and more saturated since the beginning of 2021.” He also noted that Haptagram is using a different infrastructure provider ― Binance ― than most other NFT creators. Binance is the world’s largest crypto exchange and is being investigated by the US Department of Justice and Internal Revenue Service. And he questioned Haptagram’s decision to launch a cryptocurrency, Feelcoin ― which is used to purchase its NFTs ― as well as casting doubt on several other aspects of the transaction process. Danner also told me that Haptagram is “obscuring the price” at which the NFTs are being sold.

The approach, he says, “feels like NFTs made by non-crypto people. That’s the overall vibe I get.”

Domenikos says the company is working to make things more transparent.

“Still we are perfecting the system,” he writes via e-mail.

Maybe digital touch just needed to be paired with NFTs to go mainstream? We’ll see.


Scott Kirsner can be reached at kirsner@pobox.com. Follow him on Twitter @ScottKirsner.