Skin Motion app turns my tattoo into sound waves

A new app uses augmented reality to turn pictures into sound right on your body. CNET sound engineer Bryan VanGelder got a tattoo specially to try it out.

Bryan VanGelder Former video producer
Bryan VanGelder was a technical producer for CNET. He's a metal-head, an A/V geek and a radio nut, and he spends too much money on comic books.
Ariel Nunez Producer
Joining the San Francisco CNET team in 2005, Ariel produced for shows such as Applebyte, Prizefight, and Crave. Now in New York, Ariel runs the boards for Daily podcast, The 404, and cranks out First Looks videos.
Bryan VanGelder
Ariel Nunez
4 min read
Sarah Tew/CNET

I never thought I could turn my body into a loudspeaker. 

Here at CNET, I'm the sound guy. After spending over 15 years working in media production I have a passion for not only music , but sound in general. A few years ago, I thought it would be cool to get a sleeve tattoo comprised entirely of waveforms.  

I was poking around on Reddit a few months ago and stumbled upon a post about tattoos that can play sound via your phone. This was Skin Motion, the patent-pending augmented reality app developed by Nate Siggard that generates real-time sonic playback from your tattoo, a system it calls Soundwave. Could it have been more ideal for me? Get some ink and then use my phone camera to play my sound back at me as encoded right there on my skin? SIGN ME UP.

How it works

Now, getting a tattoo is a serious decision for a person to make. And being pretty much a novice in the field of AR, I decided to do my homework. After speaking with colleagues here at CNET and getting some one-on-one time with Siggard himself -- you can hear more from him in the video above -- it turns out yes, this is a fresh new spin on AR. Essentially, after you upload a recording to Skin Motion's website, it cranks out a waveform design that is cataloged as a stencil in the Skin Motion database. You take this, as a PDF, to your tattoo artist (more on that below). 

The stencil is then synced with a photograph of your finished tattoo and when your app sees that image, it pings the Skin Motion cloud and starts playing back your selected audio. It works kind of like a QR code -- but instead of a box code, the wavelength is the code. The app matches the tattoo image to the sound you picked. That means anything can work: voicemails, love notes... anything your heart desires can be uploaded to the Skin Motion cloud.  

I went a different direction.

Being CNET's resident metalhead, and having recently said "farewell" to one of my favorite bands of all time as they played their final show after 20 years, it seemed timely and appropriate to me to get a recording of one of the heaviest, most intense and perspective-changing songs I had ever heard. I decided on "43% Burnt" by The Dillinger Escape Plan. Perhaps not to the taste of many, but this was one of the songs that motivated me to pick up a guitar and start my own band, which in itself led to a bevy of life-affirming adventures.

As I was set to embark on my inking journey, CNET was gracious enough to come along for the ride. We thought it'd be fun, relevant and educational to demonstrate the full process. From signing up to the grand reveal, we went through every step and I found a couple of caveats along the way. For instance, while the account, app and setup is free, you do need to pay an activation fee of $40 to finalize your playback. Then there's a $10 annual subscription to keep the thing active -- essentially a storage fee for your audio. 

You also need a pretty decent vantage of the tattoo in order to get a clear picture, plus you need to be online in order to ping the cloud for playback. The app also mandates that your audio be under 30 seconds in length, at least for now, and it has some size and format restrictions as far as uploading goes. That was all spelled out in detail while I was signing up on the site. But then there's another issue with tattoos: they can age and spread. Will the app not work if I gain weight or get older? This may require touch-ups over time to keep it working.

You can't just go to any tattoo shop to get this done, either. You need a certified Soundwave-approved artist. The site connected me with Joe Meiers of Red Dragon Tattoo in the Bronx. As a certified Soundwave tattoo artist, he was an essential key in the process. The tattoo itself was pretty standard, but you need a Skin Motion-approved artist to verify the design in order for it to work. Meiers was thrilled to be a part of the Skin Motion team because as he put it, "Tattoo artists are kind of like therapists anyway. Tattoos always have a story and we sit here and listen to people while they get inked and this seemed like a cool way to make it even more real." 

After 90 minutes in the chair with Meiers I was free to head out and finalize my payment and activation with the code provided, et voila... I now have a tangible representation of a tentpole moment in my life emblazoned on my flesh.  

And that, pretty much, is my Soundwave story. From start to finish the process was easy and painless... well, relatively, if you find thousands of needles painless. I'm thrilled with the outcome, but I'm a nostalgic individual. So what would your Soundwave story be? I'm curious if any of our readers out there would be interested in getting a Soundwave tattoo and what you might get, so please sound off in the comments. 

Hot tip: Skin Motion is giving away free activations to folks who upload to social media with the hashtag #mySoundwaveStory. And keep an ear to the ground. Siggard said this is only the beginning for Skin Motion as it looks to expand on not only the present limitations on storage and playback length, but also venture into new ways to use tattoos and get AR into the mainstream.  

Frankly, I'm kinda stoked to use AR for more than just catching Pokemon in my backyard.