The Media Lab at MIT has just revealed a new concept for a physically interactive book called Sensory Fiction, and it looks like Sci-Fi’s longtime pipedream of programmable sensorial storytelling has finally finally come to pass.
The Sensory Fiction project is designed to try to physically make you feel the characters’ emotions as you read the story. It consists of a hodgepodge of networked sensors and actuators, divided between a new type of connected book and a harness worn by the reader, which combine to create physical sensations that mimic what the characters are feeling.
Changes in the protagonist’s emotional or physical state triggers discrete feedback in the wearable, whether by changing the heartbeat rate, creating constriction through air pressure bags, or causing localized temperature fluctuations.
This sounds like it is still just an early concept design, and not the sophisticated feelie which Aldous Huxley described in Brave New World, and at the moment it can influence the reader by inflating airbags in the harness (to increase tension), playing sounds, vibrating to influence heart rate, and using LEDs to change the ambient light based on the setting and mood.
The initial project was developed for Alice Sheldon’s (writing as James Tiptree) The Girl Who Was Plugged in, a story in which the protagonist experiences life via a neural link to a body which she remotely controlled. You can see the idea in action below.
On a technical level this is a fascinating idea, but I think it may have been developed under a mistaken assumption. If readers wanted to experience the events they are reading about they would put the book down, get out of their comfortable chair, and go have adventures.
Then again I am usually a reactionary to the various attempts to gild the reading experience, but in this case I would point out that if a writer is good enough to convey the sensation with only words then there is no need for the harness shown above. And if the author is not good enough to convey a story with only words then what are the odds they will be able to write a worthwhile story which makes use of the Sensory Fiction harness?
In any case, I’d much rather see someone develop a story around Disney’s HideOut. That project uses a small projector to add content to a paper book: