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Sensory Fiction: Books That Let You Feel What The Characters Do

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

In our "Weekly Innovation" blog series, we explore an interesting idea, design or product that you may not have heard of yet. Do you have an innovation to share? Use this quick form.

You know the power of a great book. It transports you, taking you into another place and time. But if well-written prose and the power of your imagination aren't enough, a few clever engineers at MIT have come up with a wearable vest that hooks up to an e-book to enhance your reading experience even more.

"The 'augmented' book portrays the scenery and sets the mood, and the wearable allows the reader to experience the protagonist's physiological emotions," write Felix Heibeck, Alexis Hope and Julie Legault, the creators of the Sensory Fiction wearable book.

By combining networked sensors and actuators, the wearable can change lighting, sound, temperature, chest tightness and even heart rate of the reader to match what the main character in the book is going through.

"Changes in the protagonist's emotional or physical state [trigger] discrete feedback in the wearable, whether by changing the heartbeat rate, creating constriction through air pressure bags, or causing localized temperature fluctuations," the designers explain.

The engineers tested out their device with The Girl Who Was Plugged In by James Tiptree. In the story, the protagonist swings from deep love to ultimate despair and experiences both Barcelona sunshine and the captivity of a dark, damp cellar.

"You feel this story in your gut — it is an amazing example of the power of fiction to make us feel and empathize with the protagonist," Hope says. "Because our imaginations and emotions were so strongly moved by this story, we wondered how we could heighten that experience."

The prototype does work, but it won't be manufactured anytime soon. The creation was only "meant to provoke discussion," Hope says. It was put together as part of a class in which designers read science fiction and make functional prototypes to explore the ideas in the books.

"As designers and researchers, we like to think that we contribute to the future and therefore have the obligation to consider those [science fiction] scenarios, both in positive and negative ways," Legault says.

If it ever does become more widely available, sensory fiction could have an unintended consequence. When I shared this idea with NPR editor Ellen McDonnell, she quipped, "If these device things are helping 'put you there,' it just means the writing won't have to be as good."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Elise Hu is a host-at-large based at NPR West in Culver City, Calif. Previously, she explored the future with her video series, Future You with Elise Hu, and served as the founding bureau chief and International Correspondent for NPR's Seoul office. She was based in Seoul for nearly four years, responsible for the network's coverage of both Koreas and Japan, and filed from a dozen countries across Asia.