Our eyes and ears are not the only human sense that can perceive words. At the TED conference Tuesday in Vancouver, Baylor neuroscientist David Eagleman demonstrated a vibrating vest that allows the deaf to understand a conversation from across a room or feel the sentiment of Twitter.
The vest acts like a giant sheet of Braille; only instead of bumps on fingertips, the wearer’s entire back becomes a canvas on which to transmit data. Once confined to hearing and seeing, our skin can be an additional sensor that monitors complex pieces of information; a pilot could monitor more instruments during flight or a speaker could understand the audiences reaction while giving a speech.
“We are transporting the inner ear on to the lower back,” Eagleman tells me, as I’m wearing his vest.
His tight-fitting ski vest feels like a massage chair, where each vibration point on my back is a different piece of vocal data. Vibrations on my shoulders could be deeper tone words, such as “bread,” while vibrations on lower back could be k-sounds like “cake.” At first, the vibrations feel like a barrage of random sensations.
Eagleman says that after about five days of training, deaf patients can make out individual words from the vibrations, just like the blind can interpret bumps on Braille as words.
The more immediate application was “feeling” the opinions of Twitter. During Eagleman’s speech, people were tweeting their opinions of the TED conference.
Vibrations on the right side of my back were positive, while those on the left were negative. The vest essentially gave me a binary Spider-Man-like sense of good and bad. Without interrupting my field of vision, I could sense if a certain argument was well received or was resoundingly rejected by the Internet masses.
Eagleman calls this the “Mr. Potato Head” theory of human perception; the eyes, nose, ears and tongue are simply sensors plugged into the brain. With the right technology, we can retrain our senses to perceive different data. For instance, not every animal uses its tongue to taste food; snakes flick the air with their tongue to taste the air, just as we inhale air to smell potentially dangerous toxins.
For the most part, we only use our skin to get information about objects’ shapes, size and weight. In this way, we’ve been underutilizing the largest piece of organic tissue on our body. As we get access to more data streams and want to monitor them while multitasking, our clothes can be hacked to help us become more aware of thoughts and feelings distributed all around the world.
In the future, a T-shirt could be more than a fashion statement, but an extension of our minds.
The vest is an early prototype at the moment and Eagleman expects a version of the vest to be available sometime in 2016. It will cost between $1,000-$2,000 at launch.