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Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL

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MetaSensorium

MetaSensorium

Imagine exploring a city and feeling the emotional resonance of people who came before you, leading you through secret passages, into gardens, or allowing you to tune in to the other wearers and their experience of their surroundings.

MetaSensorium is a response to the social isolation we found ourselves in during the Covid-19 pandemic. Our retreat into a digital world of online video calls and project meetings left us feeling disconnected and desperate to feel the physical presence of the world again.

As we were on the phone, one of us in Toulouse, the other in Somerset. We were looking at the screens in front of us on ours desk and the wall behind it. Together we were wondering if we were potentially looking at each other. Or if our gazes, extrapolated, were crossing each other at a distance far away, marking a place somewhere in the world we were both looking at in that moment in time.

We realised it was in this that all of a sudden, an ‘other space’ was created. Taken from Foucault’s essay ‘Of Other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotopias’[1] in the awareness of each other’s presence and our synchronised attention for the space in front of us created a new space, the space between us, a liminal, shared space that we could experience together.

From this sensation, we started exploring wearable technology as a potential tool for connecting us in this shared space. From a first prototype that would generate haptic feedback based on our heading, to a future wearable that would allow its user to engage with this sensation by enabling a sense of synchronicity between wearers throughout space and time.  

First Design Iteration

For the first iteration we needed to begin testing the two essential elements of our idea, what is the trigger or ‘connection’ we are looking for and what is the sensory feedback we want to generate? To keep things simple we have made a prototype that combines a QMC5883L magneto-resistive sensor and an ERM vibration motor running via an Arduino Uno. Essentially this is a wearable compass that provides haptic feedback when facing north.

Findings;

Abel:

“Having had the opportunity to wear the vibration motors has taught me more about them than what I could find out by reading, by programming or by pressing them on my arm while they were taped to the table. Truly having these motors and the magnetic sensor hooked up to my body, and having to navigate my life while experiencing a new type of interaction has taught me something. The feeling wasn’t pleasant, which I think is mostly because of the heavy shock that the vibration motors caused. They were too sudden and too intense.

Having this little augmentation was surprisingly meaningful. Feeling my way around, I can now still kind of feel where north is from my living room.

Sensing magnetic direction did remind me of Massumi’s writing in Parables for the Virtual, about how he never realized which direction he was facing in his office. Thinking you’re looking out onto a street which turns out to be a completely different one[2]. Just like that, I have come to realise I always considered Hackney Wick station to be north from me. The way I have experienced walking to it always felt like I was going ‘up’ on the map. In actuality it is almost directly south from where I live. “

Our next steps would be to expand our knowledge on haptic feedback. We are exploring different activation patterns for the vibration motors that are less sudden, and also exploring alternative actuators, for example ones that might create pressure on the body rather than vibrations.

We are also paying closer attention to on the placement of actuators, tying them to our interest to energy flows in the body and interpretations of the mind-body relationship such as our preliminary research into meridian pathways used for acupuncture.

Of ongoing importance will be to introduce and expand on the idea of connection, the desire for connection being the initial spark and a pivotal element in how we have come to approach our research. Finding new ways to connect and communicate through the expanded MetaSensorium is a challenge we cannot wait to tackle.

 

 

 

 

[1] In this essay Foucault explains the concept of heterotopias as “counter-sites, a kind of effectively enacted utopia in which the real sites, all the other real sites that can be found within the culture, are simultaneously represented, contested, and inverted.” (Foucault 1984)

[2] Chapter 8 ‘Strange Horizon: Buildings, Biograms, and the Body Topologic’  from Parables for the Virtual (Massumi 2002)