“How can we make digital-technology content graspable?”- not just figuratively but literally. That was the question posed by German PhD student Fabian Hemmert. In his recent TED presentation Hemmert explains that humans live in a physical world. We experience the world around us through our senses. We touch, feel, see and smell. Digital technology, however, “is not really there.” It exists in a virtual world which for the most part remains insensible and contained.
For example, when we read a five-hundred page book, or by contrast, a newspaper, we know the difference between these objects. We perceive the distinctions not only because we see them, but because we feel them too. When we hold either item in our hands we are aware of their weight and bulk. We know that one is light and thin, whereas the other, heavy and thick. When we read them on digital platforms, however, we cannot perceive these differences. And this detracts from the human experience.
So how do we narrow this gap, Hemmert wondered? How do we make digital-technology content perceivable through our senses? The iPhone responds to touch. The Wii responds to motion. Can we improve and expand upon these constructs – “translate digital content to the human experience” and merge the two worlds so that we can perceive technology organically?
To answer this question, Hemmert noted three components of human sensory perception that could be integrated into a mobile phone. These components were: mass, shape, and the awareness of our bodies in space. Humans are sensitive to where an object feels heavy in their hands. Hence, to demonstrate how mass could be applied to a cell phone, Hemmert built what he calls a “weight-shifting mobile” – a Plexiglas case shaped like a phone which contains a moving weight inside of it. The weight shifts the center of gravity and can augment physical content with digital mass. To demonstrate this concept, Hemmert synchronized the weight so that when one views a map on a phone while navigating a city, the weight actually shifts inside of the phone in sync with the directions indicated on the map. The shifting position of the weight in one’s hand actually makes one feel when they should turn, even if they divert their glance away from the map.
Similarly, Hemmert demonstrated ways in which shape could convey information. When one reads a thick book on a phone, the phone actually expands and grows heavier in the hand so that the reader can feel its bulk. It then shrinks back to being thin, however, when tucked into a pocket.
Last, but not least, Hemmert demonstrated a “living mobile phone” that emulates breathing and a heartbeat, reminding us that it is alive and well in our pocket. To summarize Hemmert noted, it’s not that Humans should become more familiar with technology, but rather that “Technology should become a bit more human.” Looks like we are on our way.