What if a book could grip you, make your heart race or get you hot under the collar—literally?
Three MIT students have invented what they call “Sensory Fiction”, essentially a wired book connected to a wearable unit made up of various sensors. The book senses what page the reader is on and triggers certain effects, making the reader physiologically experience what the protagonist feels. To do this, the book uses 150 programmable LEDs that emit ambient light to reflect the mood, while the wearable unit uses vibration to influence the reader’s heart rate and simulate shivers, a body compressor to convey chest tension and a heating device to create localized fluctuations in body temperature.
For their prototype story, the students (Felix Heibeck, Alexis Hope and Julie Legault) appropriately chose the 1973 proto-cyberpunk novella The Girl Who Was Plugged In by James Triptee, Jr., whose afflicted protagonist uses a sophisticated computer to experience “both deep love and ultimate despair, the freedom of Barcelona sunshine and the captivity of a dark damp cellar” through another body by remote control.
There are no plans to manufacture Sensory Fiction, as the students told Paste, “Sensory Fiction is a class project of the class SciFi2SciFab. It is an artifact inspired by the readings of the class, most popularly the ‘primer’ that occurs in Neil Stephenson’s Diamond Age. While the project explores new ways of reading with digital augmentations, this is not a product idea but rather an exploration in the context of Science Fiction stories. It is an artifact meant to provoke discussions.”
The prototype certainly does raise some interesting questions—would such a product potentially enable (or even encourage) readers to take an emotional shortcut of sorts rather than develop their own sense of empathy? Are emotions that are elicited physically by a machine any less legitimate that those elicited mentally by a novel? Or (a more likely consequence) would the overall quality of Sensory Fiction writing decrease as authors became too dependent on the effects of the wearable’s external stimuli?
Of course, as the engineers assert, Sensory Fiction might simply provide a new dimension of storytelling.
“Traditionally, fiction creates and induces emotions and empathy through words and images,” the students write on their blog. “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.”