A New Way to Talk on the Go Without Whipping Out Your Phone


We spend a lot of time bemoaning how often we stare at our screens. One survey estimates that the average smartphone user burns through seven weeks a year swiping through apps and checking messages—possibly causing back problems, and definitely impairing your ability to walk down the street. A new device aims to free you from your screen without sacrificing your ability to communicate. 

The Orion Labs Onyx, a screen-less device about the size of a small jar lid and designed to be worn on a shirt or purse strap, is kind of like a high-tech, wearable walkie talkie (its creators liken it to Star Trek’s communicator badge). Outfitted with a microphone, speaker, and GPS, it connects to your phone via Bluetooth to allow you to conference call and share your location without having to whip out your phone, as mental_floss saw in a February demo. It only has one button, and it links to an app where you can adjust settings, add new members to a group, switch conversations, and see others’ locations (if they've enabled that setting). 

Though there are plenty of ways to keep in touch with friends, the Onyx’s simple, single-button design cleverly makes it more utilitarian than yet another smart watch. Just push and talk, and your message will be transmitted to all the people in your message group. It’s ideal for on-the-job coordination between coworkers, whether it’s communicating between employees in the warehouse and the retail store or among a crew setting up for an event. You don’t really need extra hands to use it, and you can talk while you multitask. Because it uses Wi-Fi or data, there’s no range limit, either, meaning you can be talking to someone across the globe as easily as someone in the next room. It’s also perfect for outdoor activities like skiing or cycling, where you’re trying to keep track of everyone in the group but can’t necessarily take out a phone. While currently, user locations are only shared via pin-points within the app, in the future, the company hopes to roll out a voice-activated feature so that you could ask Onyx, “Where is Sarah?” and it would tell you her cross streets, without Sarah needing to text “almost there, on my way!”

We live in a world where picking up the phone is reserved for big updates and news. But texting isn’t always efficient, especially if you’re trying to coordinate something more complicated than lunch plans. Pushing a button and talking, though, feels less formal than a traditional phone call. You can share a quick update without feeling like you need to exchange the pleasantries associated with a phone call, while skipping the waiting period of breathlessly watching those three little dots turn into an actual text message. Whipping out your phone to text takes you out of the world around you, whether you’re walking down the street or waiting in line at Starbucks. A screen-less button lets you stay in the moment (and avoid crashing into other pedestrians) without sacrificing the ability to send and receive quick updates (coffee orders). 

Unfortunately, this kind of technology is only useful if other people around you use it. Unless you can convince your whole family, company, or friend group to shell out more than a hundred bucks for their own devices, it’s not going to be worthwhile. But if it becomes the type of gadget everyone has, then it could become a seamless part of your day, just like Gchatting or texting.

Early adopters, you can get an Onyx two-pack for $250

All images courtesy Orion Labs