Late last year, researchers at US private research university MIT developed a new ‘wearable’ technology that enables ‘augmented reading’ in which you can actually feel the protagonists’ emotional state.

Next Step in Reading: Physically Experiencing Characters’ Feelings?

It seems that the course on ‘Science Fiction to Science Fabrication’ taught by Daniel Novy and Sophia Brueckner at MIT has really inspired research students at the MIT Media Lab. The stated objective of the course was to “tie science fiction with speculative/critical design as a means to encourage the ethical and thoughtful design of new technologies″. Sure enough, it motivated three young researchers to set up their Sensory Fiction project, whose aim is to create a new approach to reading by enabling the reader to experience the protagonist's physiological emotions. The research team of Felix Heibeck, Alexis Hope and Julie Legault tested out their system – an augmented e-book plus wearable device – with the novel ‘The Girl Who Was Plugged In’ by US science fiction writer James Tiptree.

Getting inside the protagonists’ bodies

The researchers chose this novel to test out their system because its main character lends herself perfectly to their experiment as she undergoes major emotional and physical changes as the story unfolds. The basic idea is to provide interactive reading via two separate technologies: a physical electronic book which uses vibration and LED lighting that change page-by-page to portray the scenery and set the mood for each stage of the story. In addition, the reader wears a specially-equipped vest that is connected to the book. The ‘wearable’ uses networked sensors and actuators that react to the protagonist’s changes in mood at different moments in the novel. For example, by combining the sensors and actuators, the wearable can change the temperature and heart rate of the reader to match the fear that the main character in the book is experiencing. The wearable can also create constriction through air pressure bags so as to engender tightness in the chest and hence a feeling of anxiety.

New sensory reading capability for science-fiction?

The MIT researchers explain that the project embodies the exact opposite of the way technologies are presented in fiction. They write that: “Sensory Fiction is about new ways of experiencing and creating stories”, i.e. a different way of letting the reader be transported into a science-fiction novel without losing the ability to use his/her own imagination. However, it is unlikely that we will be seeing this product on the market anytime soon. The Sensory Fiction designers stress that their invention was only “meant to provoke discussion”. It was put together as part of a class project in which designers read science fiction and make functional prototypes to explore the ideas expressed in the books.