Once more, with feeling

Late last year, a group of MIT students completed a prototype for a book as their assessment piece in a postgraduate subject called ‘Science Fiction to Science Fabrication’. Their prototype took the 1973 novella by James Triptee, Jr, The Girl Who Was Plugged In, and augmented the text with lights, sounds, heat, vibration designed to manipulation heart rate, and compression on the torso to simulate tightness in the chest.


With a nod to the book’s title, the reader must literally strap themselves in for the full effect. The result looks like a cross between a large format board book and a polygraph machine.

The Girl Who Was Plugged In changes its mood depending on where you’re up to in the story using its sensory extensions to make you feel the story’s warmth and chills, its love and its despair.

The project gained some traction and was passed around the networks by people who are into this sort of thing. And it is an interesting idea. It’s a book that makes you ‘feel’ things.

Hey, wait a second. A book that makes you feel things is just a book, isn’t it?

I know, I know. I’m the last person who should be criticising a highly elaborate and bespoke publishing project that makes some arcane point. And to be fair, this is a prototype built by students with no suggestion of commercial application.

Ever since we figured out we could write down text to transmit stories, we’ve been dreaming up new ways to augment it, first with images and atmospherics and later animation, sound, and video. In this way we might think of this project as a modern interpretation of an illuminated manuscript.

But I can’t help wonder if the act of throwing more stuff at a text demonstrates a basic lack of understanding of what reading is, or why it is. The magic of a book is that it’s all there in the text. You only have to read to make it work. And what you feel may be different from what the next person feels. One reader’s tragedy is another reader’s comedy.

What purpose do vibrations, sound, and lights serve that a good text is not already supplying? Vibrations and heat might suggest an emotion, but they are meaningless without context. Are they a supplement to how you already feel, courtesy of the words, or are they a hamfisted manipulation into some predetermined notion of how you should feel?

It’s hard to know without giving the book a whirl (which I would volunteer for any time).

But of course any suggestion of manipulation gets me thinking. What if we designed a text to lead you one way emotionally and set the sensors to push you another way?

For me, that’s when augmenting a text becomes really interesting.