When I finished reading "The Road" by Cormac McCarthy, I cried what seemed like an endless river of grief-stricken tears. If an innovation called "Sensory Fiction" ever takes wide hold, I could go back and read the post-apocalyptic father-son tale -- this time adding physical sensations of anguish to the experience to make myself feel even greater despair.
Created by MIT students as a final project for MIT Media Lab's Science Fiction to Science Fabrication class, Sensory Fiction is a wearable book that uses networked sensors and actuators to mimic the characters' emotions and physical state through discrete tangible feedback.
"Traditionally, fiction creates and induces emotions and empathy through words and images...the Sensory Fiction author is provided with new means of conveying plot, mood, and emotion while still allowing space for the reader's imagination," reads a description of the project by Felix Heibeck, Alexis Hope, and Julie Legault.
The main protagonist in the prototype augmented story, "The Girl Who Was Plugged In" by James Tiptree Jr., experiences a range of emotions and sensations -- deep love and profound despair, the warmth of sunshine and the constriction and coldness of a dark damp cellar.
Readers experience the sci-fi tale through programmable glowing LEDs that create ambient light based on what page the reader's on; a personal heating device secured at the collarbone that changes skin temperature; vibrations to influence heart rate; and a compression system to convey tightness or loosening through pressurized airbags.
As one might imagine, feeling all those sensations requires strapping on a rather cumbersome contraption. It's reminiscent of other haptic devices we've seen -- this motorized hug vest that lets wearers experience real-time virtual hugs by physically reproducing the pressure felt on the chest and back when someone gives you a squeeze. Or this jacket meant to let moviegoers physically experience tension and fear related to onscreen action.
More and more devices, it seems, aim to add physical realism to entertainment. But just how deeply can emotions be approximated with sensors, motors, and speakers? It's hard to say, but these are exactly the sorts of questions the MIT Media Lab class aimed to tackle.
"This class ties science fiction with speculative/critical design as a means to encourage the ethical and thoughtful design of new technologies," the syllabus reads. "With a focus on the creation of functional prototypes, this class combines the analysis of classic and modern science fiction texts and films with physical fabrication or code-based interpretations of the technologies they depict."
Books scheduled for the class last semester included "Neuromancer" by William Gibson, "Kill Decision" by Daniel Suarez, "Diamond Age" by Neal Stephenson, and short stories by Isaac Asimov, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Ray Bradbury.
Maybe I'm just wimpy, but I'm not sure I want to feel it in my neck and spine when something wicked this way comes.