The Book You Read Feel

"Sensory fiction" offers yet another update to our notion of what a book can be.

It's so easy to romanticize books. The things are, as Stephen King once put it, "a uniquely portable magic." Such is their power that, according to Jane Smiley“many people, myself among them, feel better at the mere sight of a book." Thomas Jefferson was cavalier about it when he confessed, in a letter to John Adams, "I cannot live without books."

These are safe admissions: Who, after all, has ever gone wrong extolling the virtues of books? Who has ever met scorn for confessing their love of the literally literary? Books are objects, yes, but they are also objectified metaphors: for structured knowledge, for self-improvement, for the human capacity to dream. We revere them not only because of what they contain, but also because of what they do not: an objective experience. Books, in ways that television and movies and radio can't, derive their power from the subjective workings of a human mind.

I mention all that because of a new project coming out of MIT's Media Lab: the development of books that are not actually, in most traditional ways of book-being, books. The new approach, instead, is wearable and immersive. It relies on extra-lexical components like sound, temperature control, vibration, and ambient lighting to tell its stories. Its creators call it "sensory fiction." 

The MIT designers of the unbooked book—Felix Heibeck, Alexis Hope, and Julie Legault—took inspiration for their project from a pre-existing work of literature, James Tiptree, Jr.'s novella The Girl Who Was Plugged In. The story features a protagonist who has a pituitary dystrophy that forces her to experience the world with the help of an avatar. "Sensory fiction" allows the reader to experience her world as she does, with the help of a wearable vest that simulates, among other things, heartbeats and shivers. "The 'augmented' book portrays the scenery and sets the mood," the designers explain, "and the wearable allows the reader to experience the protagonist's physiological emotions."

So the book is a book ... but it's also a bit of a video game. And a virtual reality experience. And a piece of wearable tech. Instead of asking the reader (well, "the reader") to empathize with its heroine, imaginatively, the novella uses physical stimuli to enforce that connection. The empathy is imposed. The feeling comes from ... the feeling.

As the team explains it

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.

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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