Academics at MIT have dreamed up something straight out of the pages of science fiction: a “wearable” book, which uses temperature controls and lighting to mimic the experiences of a story’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 localized temperature fluctuations,” say the academics.
Sensory fiction, the newest genre in literature
Dubbed “sensory fiction”, the idea was developed by Felix Heibeck, Alexis Hope and Julie Legault at MIT’s media lab. The prototype story used was James Tiptree Jr’s Hugo award-winning novella The Girl Who Was Plugged in, in which the protagonist P Burke – who is deformed by pituitary dystrophy and herself experiences life through an avatar – feels “both deep love and ultimate despair, the freedom of Barcelona sunshine and the captivity of a dark damp cellar”, said the researchers.
“Sensory fiction is about new ways of experiencing and creating stories,” they write. “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 [vest]. The ‘augmented’ book portrays the scenery and sets the mood, and the wearable allows the reader to experience the protagonist’s physiological emotions.”
A video shows the device in action – although what happens to the reader when P Burke meets her miserable end was not elaborated upon. A “monument to pituitary dystrophy. No surgeon would touch her”, Tiptree’s creation P Burke becomes a “Remote”, operating the body of the beautiful Delphi and living a life through her. When she, through Delphi, falls in love with Paul, things don’t end well:
It’s really P Burke five thousand miles away who loves Paul. P Burke the monster, down in a dungeon, smelling of electrode-paste. A caricature of a woman burning, melting, obsessed with true love. Trying over twenty-double-thousand miles of hard vacuum to reach her beloved through the girl-flesh numbed by an invisible film. Feeling his arms around the body he thinks is hers, fighting through shadows to give herself to him. Trying to taste and smell him through beautiful dead nostrils, to love him back with a body that goes dead in the heart of the fire… Perhaps you get P Burke’s state of mind?
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:
In the spare bedroom on the first floor a group of young men were gathered around a TV. They were all plugged into a device called a dreamer, very popular in that world, though unknown in this, and were playing the classic dreamer game called Ripper Killer. They had on 3D goggles and wore things called moodpads on their heads which gave low-voltage jolts to the hypothalamus in order to induce elation, longing or (as was famously the case with Ripper Killer) terror.
Adam Roberts, another prize-winning science fiction writer, found the idea of “sensory” fiction “amazing”, but also “infantalizing, like reverting to those sorts of books we buy for toddlers that have buttons in them to generate relevant sound-effects”.
“Books affect our minds; that’s the sort of machines books are. The urge to make the books directly effect our bodies as well is a sort of category error. A massage, or a fairground ride, or the sort of rock concert where there are so many speakers you feel every chord vibrating through your chest: they’re all fine. But they aren’t offering the sorts of pleasures that are uniquely bookish,” said Roberts.
“Emotions that start in the head and move into the body are far more effective than faux-emotional responses mimicked by flashing lights and pressure pads.”