It turns out that the tricky bit isn't the sensing. The world is full of gadgets that detect things humans cannot. The hard part is processing the input. Neuroscientists don't know enough about how the brain interprets data. The science of plugging things directly into the brain -- artificial retinas or cochlear implants -- remains primitive.
So here's the solution: Figure out how to change the sensory data you want -- the electromagnetic fields, the ultrasound, the infrared -- into something that the human brain is already wired to accept, like touch or sight. The brain, it turns out, is dramatically more flexible than anyone previously thought, as if we had unused sensory ports just waiting for the right plug-ins. Now it's time to build them.And a few examples:
For six weird weeks in the fall of 2004, Udo Wächter had an unerring sense of direction. Every morning after he got out of the shower, Wächter, a sysadmin at the University of Osnabrück in Germany, put on a wide beige belt lined with 13 vibrating pads - the same weight-and-gear modules that make a cell phone judder. On the outside of the belt were a power supply and a sensor that detected Earth's magnetic field. Whichever buzzer was pointing north would go off. Constantly.
"It was slightly strange at first," Wächter says, "though on the bike, it was great." He started to become more aware of the peregrinations he had to make while trying to reach a destination. "I finally understood just how much roads actually wind," he says. He learned to deal with the stares he got in the library, his belt humming like a distant chain saw. Deep into the experiment, Wächter says, "I suddenly realized that my perception had shifted. I had some kind of internal map of the city in my head. I could always find my way home. Eventually, I felt I couldn't get lost, even in a completely new place."
The downside to this is that withdrawal's a bitch; having gotten used to the sensory augmentation, one literally becomes disabled when it's taken away:
When the original feelSpace experiment ended, Wächter, the sysadmin who started dreaming in north, says he felt lost; like the people wearing the weird goggles in those Austrian experiments, his brain had remapped in expectation of the new input. "Sometimes I would even get a phantom buzzing." He bought himself a GPS unit, which today he glances at obsessively. One woman was so dizzy and disoriented for her first two post-feelSpace days that her colleagues wanted to send her home from work. "My living space shrank quickly," says König. "The world appeared smaller and more chaotic."Another sensory augmentation technology described there involves using the tongue (a high-resolution array of sensors) to sense pixels in the form of voltages. This is sufficiently effective to allow blind (or blindfolded) people to "see" through an external input device wired to a mouthpiece:
With Arnoldussen behind me carrying the laptop, I walked around the Wicab offices. I managed to avoid most walls and desks, scanning my head from side to side slowly to give myself a wider field of view, like radar. Thinking back on it, I don't remember the feeling of the electrodes on my tongue at all during my walkabout. What I remember are pictures: high-contrast images of cubicle walls and office doors, as though I'd seen them with my eyes.
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