In Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, good citizens attend the feelies—movies that allow them to feel the warmth of a bear rug or the flutter of a kiss. While it might seem as if this can only exist in the fictional world of 2540, researchers at MIT’s Media Lab have created technology that might bring this sci-fi closer to reality: Felix Heibeck, Alexis Hope, and Julie Legault developed what they call "Sensory Fiction," a vest that hooks up to an e-reader and helps readers feel what the characters in a book experience.
The vest includes networked sensors and actuators, which change the reader’s mood and environment to match the book. Sensory Fiction has 150 programmable LEDs to change lighting, sound to create ambient noise, a heating device to influence body temperature, sensors to create vibrations to quicken or slow heart rate, and a compression system to restrict the chest. These work in concert to influence the reader’s feelings. When a character becomes frightened, for example, the vest increases the heart rate and restricts the chest so the reader experiences the feeling of fear, too.
They tested their technology with The Girl Who Was Plugged In by James Tiptree.
On the Sensory Fiction website, the researchers write, “Traditionally, fiction creates and induces emotions and empathy through words and images. 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.”
They also admit that while they’re excited that the prototype works, they have no plans to mass produce Sensory Fiction. They think of it merely as a way to spark debate.