Though you must have all imagined how terrified Peeta and Katniss were when they were competing in the Hunger Games and then again in Catching Fire, you probably did not feel like you were in their shoes and living the experience with them. That, is what researchers at MIT's Media Lab are trying to achieve with a new device that they call Sensory Fiction.
The product comprises of two components, one of which of course is the book that is fitted with special sensors and actuators. The other, is a vest that is connected to the book and then donned by the reader, so that he/she can experience the action in the story, as it unfolds.
For example, during a particularly suspenseful passage, the vest may vibrate and help increase the reader's heart rate to mimic excitement or nervousness. Real fear can be felt thanks to the compression of the reader's chest by the pressure bags inside the vest. If that is not enough, a device near the collar bone helps lower the body temperature and send a chill down his/her spine! Shame or embarrassment will be experienced via a heating device that increases the skin temperature and may even cause the reader to blush!
In addition, 150 programmable LED lights embedded on the cover of the prototype book help alter its appearance to reflect the changes in mood and setting that are occurring within the story universe. For example, if the protagonist is despondent, the lights on the cover will dim so that you can feel his/her sorrow.
For their prototype, the research team led by Felix Heibeck, used award-winning sci-fi novella, 'The Girl Who Was Plugged In', by James Tiptree. The book, about a deformed girl who navigates life with the help of an avatar, was the perfect choice for the test. That's because it portrays a wide range of environments - from sunny Barcelona to a dreary cellar, as well as, a full spectrum of emotions - from love to utter hopelessness.
While the researchers believe that Sensory Fiction is the next paradigm shift in reading, others are not so sure. Science fiction author Adam Robert believes that physical emotions cannot be as powerful as the ones imagined by the mind. He compares the concept to toddler books with sound effects and buttons and does not see much value in it.
Since Sensory Fiction is currently just a prototype and will take a few years of testing before there is even a chance of seeing it in stores, we will just have to wait to see who is right! But it does shed a light on the importance of not only reading, but also, connecting to the characters and events within a story, with or without a vest!