The Magnetic Sense

To add to Vaughan’s post about cyborg senses the other day, here’s another group experimenting with new ways of perceiving the world. Steve Haworth and Jesse Jarrell are body modification artists, and one of their clients was Todd Huffman, who has had a small magnet implanted in the tip of his finger.

In an interview with Todd, The Gift of Magnetic Vision (some pictures on this site are not for the squeamish), he describes how this magnet isn’t just a trick and what “seeing” magnetic fields feels like:

There are two distinct feelings I get from fields. For a static field, like a bar magnet, it feels like a smooth pressure. Imagine running your hand slowly through lukewarm water, and brushing your finger across the top of a large invisible marshmallow. That is the closest description I can give. Oscillating fields, such as electric motors, security devices, transformers, et cetera, vibrate the magnet. This sensation is much more sensitive and noticeable.

Having the magnet implant makes his understanding of the world more visceral:

Another time I opened a can of cat food for my girlfriend’s pets, and I sensed the electric motor running. My hand was about six inches away from the electric can opener, and I was able to sense where the motor was inside of the assembly. Again it brought my attention to a magnetic source that I understood intellectually, but would have otherwise been unaware of.

The interview also covers other supersenses Todd is thinking about, and the relation of this kind of experimentation to new computer interfaces–which is subject I find fascinating.

Interfaces of all kinds, whether it’s burglar alarms, televisions or computer screens, present information in a very factual way and in a way that’s intended for intellectual understanding. But compare that to the ambient understanding we have of the rest of the world around us: reading somebody’s scribbled note also carries a hurried sense; a car getting a flat or needing an oil change will drive differently; a glance along the spice rack will influence your shopping list. Our regular senses work on both attentive and preperceptive channels… so why do our technological systems so often stick to the former? And is it possible to transform the previously invisible – like magnetic fields – into senses we can use? This is what academic subjects like ubiquitous computing and ubicomp computer-human interaction are attacking, on technological and design fronts. But it seems that the folks really breaking new ground are the body-mod crowd.

Link to The Gift of Magnetic Vision.

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