MIT engineers have created a sensory vest that allows readers to feel what a book’s protagonist is experiencing. The vest contains a heartbeat and shiver stimulator, a body compression system, temperature controls and sound. It has some of the elements I imagine virtual reality suits will eventually have.
The Girl Who Was Plugged In.
The engineers seemed to have used a very appropriate book for their prototype in James Tiptree Jr's novella The Girl Who Was Plugged in. In that novella, the protagonist is deformed by pituitary dystrophy and experiences life through an avatar. The protagonist feels "both deep love and ultimate despair, the freedom of Barcelona sunshine and the captivity of a dark damp cellar", said the engineers.
I imagine the vest heats up when the protagonist is in the sunshine, and causes the wearer to shiver when the protagonist is in the cellar. The vest would probably increase the heart rate of the wearer when they are falling in love.
No to the Vest.
Some in the publishing industry are not impressed with the sensory vest. Science fiction author Adam Roberts told the Guardian that he found the “idea of ‘sensory” fiction ‘amazing’, but also ‘infantilising, like reverting to those sorts of books we buy for toddlers that have buttons in them to generate relevant sound effects.’”
Just a Gimmick.
Assuming a vest could be constructed that was easy to put on and comfortable to wear lying down or in a chair, would sensory book vests take off? Most probably the vests would just be a gimmick from which people quickly tire, like many people have tired of 3D movies.
I can see the vests might have a market for use when watching television: they could increase your heart rate every time a commercial came on. And sensory elements like heart rate and temperature will most probably be a future aspect of virtual reality suits. But I don’t think adults will be wearing vests while reading in the future.
Reading is all about being immersed in a story created by your imagination’s reaction to the author’s words. Children might take to the vests when reading, but I suspect they will quickly turn to more immersive virtual reality. And who knows what limiting effects the vest might have on a child’s imagination and ability to feel.
I don’t expect Amazon to be knocking on the door of the inventors of the sensory vest for books.