High-tech book allows readers to feel emotions of a character

January 29, 2014

Novel lovers have a message for the inventors of a new "sensory fiction" device designed to be worn by readers: don't mess with books.

Developed at MIT, the high-tech book comes with a vest containing a "heartbeat and shiver simulator," a body compression system, temperature controls and sound, the Guardian reports.

The book senses which page is being read and changes ambient lighting and vibrations to set the mood, said inventors Felix Heibeck, Alexis Hope and Julie Legault at MIT's media lab.

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

The idea, they said, is to help put readers in the protagonist's shoes.

But as multiple Guardian readers pointed out, a good book does that perfectly well without bells or whistles.

"It's cool technology," wrote ameliaposte, "but part of why I enjoy a book is that I can imagine these things for myself."

Other comments were less diplomatic.

Guardian reader hureharehure described the inventors as "sheltered, vociferously literal, deeply unimaginative nerds" and "the last people in the world who ought to be mucking around with books."

Sensory fiction "should make hack authors with limited literary skills rich and famous," wrote marshwren, but the invention will leave readers "intellectually and emotionally illiterate."

The story used for the MIT prototype is James Tiptree Jr.'s The Girl Who Was Plugged In, about a woman deformed by pituitary dystrophy who feels a range of emotions while experiencing life through an avatar.

"Sensory fiction is about new ways of experiencing and creating stories," the MIT researchers said. "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."

The argument sounds a lot like what inventors said about movies and television back in the day. Once condemned as the death knell of the imagination, not to mention literature, "talking pictures" have also been souped up in 4D theatres with physical effects such as ambient scents and a poke in the seat back to match the action on screen.

The question is, when is a book no longer a book?

Most people will agree that digital books on e-readers still qualify. But purists may argue that a book is only a book if you can read it in the bath.

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