Felix Heibeck, Alexis Hope and Julie Legault of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s media lab have recently created a new prototype book which, through lighting, vibration, temperature change and chest constriction (actions produced partly by the book itself and partly by a wearable vest) is meant to physically simulate the emotions experienced by the story’s protagonist as you read. (See the Guardian article linked here for more detail)
The idea of connecting a user’s physical sensations to a character’s emotional state is not a particularly new one, but until now most such endeavours have involved video games rather than the written word. My own experience with this type of phenomenon is limited to the game Heavy Rain, the newest edition of which connects the player to the character both via a motion sensing controller (the player must move their body in an approximation of the character’s required actions), and by simulating a rapidly beating heart through controller vibration during the most stressful moments of gameplay. As someone who rarely plays video games to their completion, I found this feature incredibly effective, my own heartbeat speeding along with the characters’.
However, the question remains, is this type of physical immersion warranted in reading? As a reader, I find any outside stimuli (music, television, movement in the periphery of my vision) very distracting and, when reading at home, will often seek out the most sensory deprived room in the house.
More broadly, I wonder what effect body-influencing devices like this might have on the way literary fiction has been recently shown to boost “empathy, social perception, and emotional intelligence.” Since I don’t believe we yet know how this boost is accomplished, it follows that we also don’t know how changes to the way we read may influence it. It’s of course possible that greater physical connectivity will increase the reader’s ability to empathise with a character, particularly where that character’s response to a situation may differ from one’s own. However, the tension between this difference in reader response and character response can also be one of the factors that makes literary fiction compelling.
It’s interesting that the sample text used for the Sensory Fiction prototype, Hugo Award winning novella The Girl Who Was Plugged in by James Tiptree Jr, features the meta aspect of a main character who experiences the world by proxy, living through a somewhat sensory deprived avatar. I can’t help but wonder if the creators of the device meant this as a wry sort of comment on their own concept, an acknowledgement from the start that a life lived “plugged in” is always a life one-step removed.