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Virtual empathy: Book lets you feel characters' pain

  • This week's 5 most fantastic ideas and innovations!
  • 'Sensory fiction' plugs you into the emotions of your book
  • Also this week: 'Star Trek' Holodeck might become a real thing
Virtual empathy: Book lets you feel characters' pain

Editor's note: Karyn Lu is Turner Broadcasting's manager of New Media Insights & Inspiration. Each week, she scouts out amazing innovations, cutting-edge technology and, well, just really awesome stuff. Before it goes mainstream, it's going to be one of her 5 Things From The Future!

As a recovering English major, I of course have a major love affair with books. I’ll laugh out loud, I’ll cry, I will let myself feel every bit of happiness, doubt, fear and pain that my favorite characters go through over the course of a story. That’s the magic of a really great book, right? But what if we could take that experience one step further?

What if (along with the trend of immersive and sensory experiences) technology steps in to heighten the ways we experience even the written word? What if we can actually feel our hero's pain?

Appropriately named “Sensory Fiction,” an interesting project out of MIT is designed to do exactly that. The setup (a prototype) is a book-plus-vest combo, where an e-book is plugged into the vest, which is worn by the reader. The book is outfitted with numerous LED lights for ambient lighting, and it too was carefully chosen: a digital version of James Tiptree Jr.’s 1974 sci-fi novella “The Girl Who Was Plugged In.”

According to the project video, "The book senses the current page, and changes the ambient lighting and vibration to match the mood." In addition, the connected vest features a body compression system, heartbeat and shiver simulator, and localized body temperature controls -- all working together to induce and simulate various emotions in sync with the story arc.

According to the four students who created the project: "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."

But you won't find this product in the Kindle store any time soon: The students mean for their prototype to act only as an artifact, provoking discussions about future science fiction scenarios.

As much as I love technology, I'm pretty old-school about my books -- I still prefer the bound paper kind I can hold in my hands to any kind of tablet. After all, as everything around us gets smarter and more augmented, aren't some experiences better left as simple pleasures?

Share your thoughts below after taking a look at the rest of this week's amazing Things From the Future!

-- A small box, a spectacular show: Smartphone hooks up for stunning projection mapping.

-- Straight out of "Star Trek," the Holodeck may become a (virtual) reality in the near future.

-- "We’ve become terrible at talking to each other." Community emerges around the desire to disconnect.

-- Zombies in the sewers? Zombies in the sewers. Scream... then laugh at this wild ad campaign.

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