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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 project in 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 our desks 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 and if there might be a better way to stay connected over distance than by purely digital means.

To tackle this sense of disconnection, how can we begin to provide a new augmented layer on top of our daily experience, or initiate a physical response to distant connection with others?

Our instinct was to start developing wearable technologies equipped with GPS sensors and haptic actuators that allow us to establish a new form of communication. All of a sudden we were able to tune into the presence of the other, feeling when our gaze would meet. A new addition to our natural sensorium that tunes into an ‘other space’ just as described in Foucault’s essay ‘Of Other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotopias’[1] the space between us, a liminal, shared space that we could experience together.

The wearable is designed to interact with energy flows in the body known as meridians in acupuncture and Chinese medicine. Embedded and embroidered magnetic actuators are aligned with points on the body and activate when the signal sent by the headpiece to the server matches with its pair in another location or with a previous point of connection. The sensation created on the body is similar to goosebumps or a very gentle touch and is applied in user determined patterns. 

The use of magnets is a poetic nod to cyborg-thinking, in that within this application they blur the boundaries between material and machine and they are felt as a very within-and-of-body sensation rather than something applying an effect or notification onto you.

“ Late twentieth-century machines have made thoroughly ambiguous the difference between natural and artificial, mind and body, self-developing and externally designed, and many other distinctions that used to apply to organisms and machines. Our machines are disturbingly lively, and we ourselves frighteningly inert.” – Donna J. Harraway

The aim of the MetaSensorium is not only to develop a wearable for ourselves but to create a network and platform that allows people to connect and imagine possible futures. We want to steer the ideas around wearable tech and cyborg-ism away from the utopia/dystopia binary and towards the more fluid ‘heterotopia’ – the idea of ‘other spaces’, which will prove an essential approach for generating new inhabitable futures.

What are the ethics of introducing these technologies into popular use? How do advancements in the technologies we use to communicate continue to influence behaviour and interaction? What if your sensorium can be hacked?

 [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)