Do We REALLY Need This?

I am not a Luddite.  While slow to buy into new technologies, I selectively embrace them, much like the popular girl in school who will take the arm of the quarterback, but not the tight end. I was not the first on my block to have a Kindle or an iPod, but I was also spared the embarrassment and the expense of Betamax and a Quad system.  There is a new device, however, upon which Sweet Joseph is going to have to take an immediate and irrevocable pass. This would be something called a “wearable book.”
When I first saw the headline for this I thought that perhaps it was a sort of hands-free device that would enable one to read while stirring a casserole or hefting weights from Point A to B without having to turn a page. Yes, I know, those are called “audiobooks,” but I thought that perhaps this was something different, a device that somehow sensed when your eyes had reached the end of a page and turned or scrolled it for you. No; the wearable book, which results in something called “sensory fiction,” is a vest-like contraption coupled with a specially designed reading device which is designed to physically communicate the emotions of the characters in a novel to the reader as the book is read. My understanding of how this works is that if, say, Jack Reacher is trying to defuse a bomb as its digital clock clicks toward zero, the reader will experience a tingling in the appropriate place which will approximate the feeling Reacher gets as eternity nears.

I’m not making this up. It’s been developed at MIT and if you would like to read all about it in the UK Telegraph you can check out the article here. The folks who worked on this seem to be very sincere; the first story treated to this new technology is “The Girl Who Was Plugged In” by James Tiptree, Jr., a classic science-fiction short story which even people who think that they hate the genre might well enjoy. If they met their threshold definition of success for this device, well, I’m happy for them. My problem with this device — and correct me if I’m wrong — is that it is our job as authors to make the readers hearts and minds go pitter-patter without the aid of an artificial device. Stephen King needed nothing more than the page and the printed word to make my hairs stand on end, repeatedly, in THE SHINING. More recently — much more recently — I have been reading a book due to be published next week titled THE GIRL WITH A CLOCK FOR A HEART by Peter Swanson that has had my brain engaged since the first paragraph. I have been screaming — inwardly and occasionally out loud — since the first page, and not just because I identify with the poor fool who against all logic becomes involved with his college sweetheart, who is not a good person, no not at all. Swanson did that, not a vest.

Please check out the link above, and tell me: are you intrigued? Or isn’t all fiction sensory already, if it’s done right? Isn’t that why we read?

45 thoughts on “Do We REALLY Need This?

    • That was my first thought too! Definitely this technology could have genre-specific applications, lol. I think they already have something like that for video, or did at some point. Too funny!

  1. Like you, I don’t think I’ll wear the vest. As a writer, we should be able to convey a feeling through our words. As a reader, we should be able to pull from our emotional memories to feel what the writer is trying to convey. I love audio books, but sometimes feel narrator intrusion when the reader gets a little too emotional or excited. I do understand that it is up to that reader, and the producer, to interpret for the listener. I don’t think I need to physically feel another person’s interpretation of what I should feel.

    Of course, airports and TSA could make for a whole new reading adventure with the vest.

    • I had TOTALLY forgotten about the flying aspect of this, Rick. At least anyone wearing the vest would have something to read while they’re sitting in that sequestered security room for three hours!

  2. Fifty Shades of GAH!

    And no, hell no, I don’t even like shaky cam movies (OMG, we’re running now!) with overly loud sound and vibration systems (GEE, was that a bomb! Is the plane crashing right into the theater, #holdme.)

    And get off my lawn.


    • Terri, I totally forgot about that ill-fated movie “sensaround,” or whatever it was. Good point.

      Re: the lawn, I explained to the neighborhood urchins that if they kept leaving trash on the lawn their cut-through privileges were revoked. A couple of them are slow on the uptake but they’re learning.

  3. I think this would work better for other visual arts like films. A good writer should be able to evoke emotions in the reader just by virtue of their writing. Otherwise, this is just plain lazy.

    And what if a scene that’s meant to be tragic strikes me as utterly funny? Will the air bags squeeze the life out of me while I cackle to death?

  4. Fascinating, yes, but I’m not interested. Call me old-fashioned, but it seems we already have enough technology deciding things for us. Although I’ve embraced e-reading wholeheartedly, I’d prefer we still leave the burden on the storyteller to help us “feel” the story.

    Now if those MIT geniuses would come up with technology that would clean my house, do my grocery shopping, or pull the weeds in the flower beds, I’d be all over that.

  5. If that’s the case then no more war books for me.
    Why can’t they just leave it alone? Our eyes and occasionally ears (where books are concerned) are the real gateway to our minds.

  6. This may have potential somewhere, somehow down the line, but I honestly don’t see where or how right now. It’s one of those weird, interesting ideas that may lead to something later. But at this stage, it just seems silly.

    • I was wondering as well, Eric, if this might possibly be an evolutionary step toward some other endgame. Don’t know what it would be, though. I don’t see any commercial applicability at this stage, however, and it seems from the comments here I’m certainly in that long line.

  7. What won’t they think of next, Joe? Reminds me of a recent restaurant experience. [Seems like I don’t get out much.] So there was a hundred or so people ahead of us and the gave me this thing — like a pager. Do they still have actual pagers any more? So I put the thing in my pocket and we go outside to wait. When our turn came I nearly jumped out of my skin. Talk about a sensory experience.

  8. This is such a bad idea I don’t know where to start. It was bad enough they tried to put videos and pictures in novels, thereby bypassing the imagination to say nothing of the sweat and hard work the author put into the story. Now they want to dictate what friggin emotions we were supposed to feel? There some some geeks who have way too much time on their hands dreaming this stuff up.

    And all I can think about is that gawd awful movie “Brainstorm.” Ugh.

    • I totally agree, Kris. If one wanted to experience the emotions of Louis Kincaid of HEART OF ICE, for example, one could have just walked out my front door and read the book in my front yard!

  9. All I can think of is Brave New World and the “feely” movies where it zaps you with sensory experience. And it’s primarily used for erotica.

    I’ve used game controllers for years that vibrate when you get shot or whatever. It’s great for a game. Not so much for a book. I read with my kids interrupting me every few paragraphs. How does the thing know when I’m looking at the page and not the kids? When I yell at them, will it give me simulated rage? I don’t need that!

    • I didn’t know about that feature with the game controllers, Kessie, though now that I think on it, aren’t there so gloves like that as well? My video game days are, alas, far behind me, given that my fine motor skills aren’t quite what they used to be…

    • The “feelies” (wasn’t the scent organ a component too) – I thought of Aldous Huxley and Brave New World as I read your post, Joe.
      I’m not for it, but the man has been dead-on with virtually every element of his amazingly prescient book. Nostradamus is a sloppy horoscope compared to Aldous!

    • Tom, thanks for mentioning that. Huxley was spot-on, frighteningly so. And Orwell, except for the date, seems to have had the blueprint down as well.

  10. *eye roll* Dear Lord. Shades of STRANGE DAYS with Ralph Fienes. We’ll all be wearing SQUIDS on our heads to experience life. Talk about a cheap vacation.

    • Good afternoon, Jordan! I think of the SQUIDS every time I read an article about Google Glass, and the “advances” that will occur once Samsung, Apple, Amazon, et al. begin marketing their own versions.

  11. Plus, I think the designers of the technology misunderstand what people are looking for from the reading experience. For example, when I’m reading articles online, I get annoyed when a link opens a video instead of written content. Videos can be enjoyable, and so is reading, but the sensory experiences are different. They don’t mix well together. For me, anyway.

    • I am SO glad that you mentioned this point, Kathryn, as I thought that I was the only one who found this to be irritating. News sites are particular offenders on this; I’ll be a paragraph or two into the article and then suddenly the audio from the video will start blaring. The reader should have a choice between either or both.

    • It is kind of creepy, isn’t it, Claire? I envision rooms full of school children, wearing the vests, all silently shivering/shaking/smiling/frowning in unison.

  12. I could see this being the next step forward in virtual reality games where, like with the vibrating game controllers already available, the vest would provide feedback about the virtual environment. I can’t see this working well to trigger internal chemical and hormonal reactions that result in feeling emotion.

    There have been posts saying that a good writer can convey emotions. In the past, there’s been a lot written about how to get that done by describing internal bodily sensations, subtle body language changes, other behavioral responses. If you read text books about body language, the first caveat that every author makes is that you can’t assume a body language signal always means the same thing. There’s little facial difference between tears of grief and tears of joy. Sometimes, if we as writers want to be clear what a character feels, we have to name the emotion. Perhaps in those instances, if this vest can actually make the synapses react with the correct emotional response, it would be useful.

    Also, it’s good to remember that only a tiny portion of the public reads books for pleasure. I once read that 3% of the population is responsible for 97% of the book sales. Maybe part of why non-readers don’t read is because they can’t connect to the emotions of the characters through words. Maybe this vest would help–but I have my doubts.

    I would be interested to see the actual research that showed from brain scans how the brain responded to just the words, just the vest, and the combination of the words with the vest.


    • Interesting, Kathy. I am sure that the research and resulting data is available somewhere — if not available to you and me — but it would certainly be valuable. I still think ultimately that if something is done right you don’t need the vest, or anything other than the work. One example: the Budweiser commercial that everyone is talking about, with the horse and the dog. Does it get any better than that, on any level? One sure doesn’t need a jacket to elicit emotions from watching that.

  13. “much like the popular girl in school who will take the arm of the quarterback, but not the tight end”

    In my school, the reason the girl was popular was because she DID take “the tight end” of the quarterback…

  14. This strikes me as a very bad idea. An important thing about books is that you get to have the experiences you have while reading it, regardless of sensations you’re “supposed” to have. Your mind’s eye and your body react the way you react–which may or may not be what the writer intended. What this does is give the writer a way to control the reader in a way that takes away the sublimely personal way people relate to each book. Yuck.

    • I agree, Jeanne. There is an Orwellian element to this in the sense that this jacket could be used to tell you how to feel about what you read, which, to my mind, is as bad as telling you what to read.

  15. Well, imagine someone wearing one of these things and then having some kind of “unfortunate accident.” And Joe hears that Kah-Chinging sound in the background, because he knows ezzackly what I’m talking about. Reminds me of the woman who sued Motel 6 after she fell asleep in the Magic Fingers chair and the thing failed to shut off.

    Think about it.

    • While I have throughout my checkered career attempted to avoid the moniker “ambulance chaser,” Jim, I must confess that I saw, but did not mention, the liability potential this jacket would carry with it in the event of what we might call a “negligent misfire.” The mind boggles.

  16. A tingler vest. Thanks so much, Joe, for the heads-up on this must-have item. Someone named Russell Blake writes ten hours a day on a special treadmill. I will try to get word to him about the tingler.

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