A wearable book (The Girl Who Was Plugged In) makes you feel the protagonists pain

A team of students taking an MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) course called ‘Science Fiction to Science Fabrication‘ have created a new kind of category for books, sensory fiction.  John Brownlee in his Feb. 10, 2014 article for Fast Company describes it this way,

Have you ever felt your pulse quicken when you read a book, or your skin go clammy during a horror story? A new student project out of MIT wants to deepen those sensations. They have created a wearable book that uses inexpensive technology and neuroscientific hacking to create a sort of cyberpunk Neverending Story that blurs the line between the bodies of a reader and protagonist.

Called Sensory Fiction, the project was created by a team of four MIT students–Felix Heibeck, Alexis Hope, Julie Legault, and Sophia Brueckner …

Here’s the MIT video demonstrating the book in use (from the course’s sensory fiction page),

Here’s how the students have described their sensory book, from the project page,

Sensory fiction is about new ways of experiencing and creating stories.

Traditionally, fiction creates and induces emotions and empathy through words and images.  By using a combination of networked sensors and actuators, the Sensory Fiction author is provided with new means of conveying plot, mood, and emotion while still allowing space for the reader’s imagination. These tools can be wielded to create an immersive storytelling experience tailored to the reader.

To explore this idea, we created a connected book and wearable. The ‘augmented’ book portrays the scenery and sets the mood, and the wearable allows the reader to experience the protagonist’s physiological emotions.

The book cover animates to reflect the book’s changing atmosphere, while certain passages trigger vibration patterns.

Changes in the protagonist’s emotional or physical state triggers discrete feedback in the wearable, whether by changing the heartbeat rate, creating constriction through air pressure bags, or causing localized temperature fluctuations.

Our prototype story, ‘The Girl Who Was Plugged In’ by James Tiptree showcases an incredible range of settings and emotions. The main protagonist experiences both deep love and ultimate despair, the freedom of Barcelona sunshine and the captivity of a dark damp cellar.

The book and wearable support the following outputs:

  • Light (the book cover has 150 programmable LEDs to create ambient light based on changing setting and mood)
  • Sound
  • Personal heating device to change skin temperature (through a Peltier junction secured at the collarbone)
  • Vibration to influence heart rate
  • Compression system (to convey tightness or loosening through pressurized airbags)

One of the earliest stories about this project was a Jan. 28,2014 piece written by Alison Flood for the Guardian where she explains how vibration, etc. are used to convey/stimulate the reader’s sensations and emotions,

MIT scientists have created a ‘wearable’ book using temperature and lighting to mimic the experiences of a book’s protagonist

The book, explain the researchers, senses the page a reader is on, and changes ambient lighting and vibrations to “match the mood”. A series of straps form a vest which contains a “heartbeat and shiver simulator”, a body compression system, temperature controls and sound.

“Changes in the protagonist’s emotional or physical state trigger discrete feedback in the wearable [vest], whether by changing the heartbeat rate, creating constriction through air pressure bags, or causing localised temperature fluctuations,” say the academics.

Flood goes on to illuminate how science fiction has explored the notion of ‘sensory books’ (Note: Links have been removed) and how at least one science fiction novelist is responding to this new type of book,,

The Arthur C Clarke award-winning science fiction novelist Chris Beckett wrote about a similar invention in his novel Marcher, although his “sensory” experience comes in the form of a video game:

Adam Roberts, another prize-winning science fiction writer, found the idea of “sensory” fiction “amazing”, but also “infantalising, like reverting to those sorts of books we buy for toddlers that have buttons in them to generate relevant sound-effects”.

Elise Hu in her Feb. 6, 2014 posting on the US National Public Radio (NPR) blog, All Tech Considered, takes a different approach to the topic,

The prototype does work, but it won’t be manufactured anytime soon. The creation was only “meant to provoke discussion,” Hope says. It was put together as part of a class in which designers read science fiction and make functional prototypes to explore the ideas in the books.

If it ever does become more widely available, sensory fiction could have an unintended consequence. When I shared this idea with NPR editor Ellen McDonnell, she quipped, “If these device things are helping ‘put you there,’ it just means the writing won’t have to be as good.”

I hope the students are successful at provoking discussion as so far they seem to have primarily provoked interest.

As for my two cents, I think that in a world where it seems making personal connections  is increasingly difficult (i.e., people becoming more isolated) that sensory fiction which stimulates people into feeling something as they read a book seems a logical progression.  It’s also interesting to me that all of the focus is on the reader with no mention as to what writers might produce (other than McDonnell’s cheeky comment) if they knew their books were going to be given the ‘sensory treatment’. One more musing, I wonder if there might a difference in how males and females, writers and readers, respond to sensory fiction.

Now for a bit of wordplay. Feeling can be emotional but, in English, it can also refer to touch and researchers at MIT have also been investigating new touch-oriented media.  You can read more about that project in my Reaching beyond the screen with the Tangible Media Group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) posting dated Nov. 13, 2013. One final thought, I am intrigued by how interested scientists at MIT seem to be in feelings of all kinds.

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