Sunday, February 16, 2014

Sensory Book Vests

Researchers at the MIT Media Lab have created a "wearable" book. 
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. 

“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," the engineers told the Guardian newspaper.

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.’”  

An editor on the NPR blog quipped that "If these device things are helping 'put you there,' it just means the writing won't have to be as good." A bit like 3D movies were some film makers seem to think the plot’s primarily function is to enable lots of opportunities for distracting objects to jump out from the screen, rather than tell a logical and compelling story.  

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.


graywave said...

This kind of stuff is typical of MIT. I'd love to know what the hit to miss ratio is on their output - approaching zero would be my guess. On the other hand, their publicity department is absolutely world class.

Graham Clements said...

LOL Graham. So it might pay to be a writer at MIT, to take advantage of that world class publicity.

Anthony J. Langford said...

Fascinating.. but then again, virtual reality never really took off.. remember those helmet games?

Now if it were to develop over time, it could be interesting. I think that eventually all of these worlds will merge, where by we will 'visit' holographic worlds where we can interact with 3D humans etc, a bit like the Holo Deck in Next Generation, perhaps wearing some sort of suit, so that we can feel sensations.
Pretty soon we wont have to leave the house or actually interact with 'real' people at all.

Graham Clements said...


I never tried those virtual reality helmet games when they were in shopping centres, did not want to look like a dick waving my arms around. But from what I was hearing on the radio the other day, I think a next generation version of virtual reality is about to take off. I expect it to be a dominant form of entertainment within the next decade, that's why I think any attempt at sensory vests for books, will be quickly overtaken by virtual reality. The holodecks are a lot further away, I only see them working with very sophisticated nanoswarms that can instantly create the infrastructure of the virtual scenes someone is seeing, ie, if you see a seat, the nanoswarm creates the framework of a seat for you to sit on. I have always been fascinated by how the holo decks would work.