January 29, 2014

Sensory fiction: “Wearable” books are here


Curling up in bed with a  wearable book. Image taken from Flickr, Copyright F3H3

Curling up in bed with a wearable book.
Image taken from Flickr, Copyright F3H3

Three academics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have developed a “wearable” book that allows readers to experience the emotions and atmosphere of the novel’s protagonist as they are reading.

The book, which its inventors are calling “sensory fiction”, works by sensing which page the reader has reached and then matching the atmosphere of that page to the reader’s surroundings via a body vest. The developers told the Guardian:

“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 localised temperature fluctuations”.

The book also transmits ambient light and vibrates to further summon a particular narrative mood. Felix Heibeck, Alexis Hope and Julie Legault dreamed up the concept in MIT’s Media Lab, and fittingly used the scif-fi novella The Girl Who Was Plugged In by James Tiptree Jr as their prototype. They believe this new technology has the power to augment the reading experience:

“Sensory fiction is about new ways of experiencing and creating stories. 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.”

It’s clear the developers are already envisaging a future where authors would write with the wearable book in mind, imagining not just a plot but the sound, lighting and sensory affects that could accompany it. It’s not necessarily a future some writers agree with. The science fiction writer Adam Roberts told the Guardian that while he found the idea “amazing”, it was also “infantalising”:

“Books effect our minds; that’s the sort of machines books are. The urge to make the books directly effect our bodies as well is a sort of category error…Emotions that start in the head and move into the body are far more effective than faux-emotional responses mimicked by flashing lights and pressure pads.”

See the wearable book in action here.


Zeljka Marosevic is the managing director of Melville House UK.