Monday, September 20, 2010

A robotic headset for the sensual cyborg

I know, I know. This looks like a lot of things. A native American chief's headdress, a peacock's plumage, a porcupine, a torture tool, a toilet brush, or something Lady Gaga would wear on stage. And sure, only a tiny group of individuals would probably invest in fitting themselves a high-tech, cyborg identity by wearing such a contraption. Yet although this concept is almost unthinkable to hit the shelves, it does show us an interesting glimpse of the future.

The idea was developed by Jop Japenga, and is meant to share the mood of the music you are listening to with others around you. The device has scales that will behave in a physical way according to six modes: happy, dreamy, passionate, angry, mysterious, and sad. So when the extensive Beatles playlist on your iPhone hits the Vedanta-ish lyrics of 'Within You Without You', the scales will slowly start waving upwards, towards the realm of the infinite, eternal, and absolute. And when it reaches 'Cold Turkey' where John Lennon is roaring because he wants his heroin, the scales might start to stand up out of pure frustration. This way, in Japenga's words, 'a small peephole into our private atmospheres' is opened.

To see why this is interesting we have to think back in time a little bit, to the time before people stuffed their ears with white plastic before heading out the door. Back then, people didn't really live in an information-space like we do now. The television had been suffusing our minds with data within the confined realm of our homes for a while, but as soon as we stepped out the door we were in the big world out there, and there was no other information to control and connect to. So then naturally, people focused more on the people around them, because they were simply the most interesting things around to pay attention to. Now I have not lived long enough to experience this time as a grown and fully conscious person, but I can imagine that this gave rise to much more spontaneous discussions that, no distractions being present for a decent amount of time, led to many intellectually interesting, even philosophical, everyday conversations. And I can imagine too how listening to personal music in public after the Walkman was released was considered rude, and a sign of intellectual decline.

But the digital generation didn't care. The idea that you could control your perceptual space simply won over letting it up to chance who or what you met on your way. I guess it just didn't seem wrong to listen to Metallica or Madonna all the time, if the chance that you might strike up a rich and personally enlightening conversation was remote anyway. Little did we know that our attention would become so fragmented, and digital media would control us to such an extreme extent as they tend to do today.

So we were mostly cut off from our direct surroundings, our mind always tending to be somewhere else. And over time, we each have created an own digital information space to live in. An own cosmos, so to say. What digital media have showed us over anything else is that really we can decide what we perceive and alter things to our liking. The drive to freely explore, create, and experiment is more and more being met through digital media, which is an enormously empowering development.

But the result is a brain that can tend to associate wildly, and always create intentions to explore more, consume more, share more, and create more. Mental calmth is hard to enjoy these days. And we are not giving up our personal layer of information. So what do we do?

What this strange-looking headset does, and what we should do, is to enlarge our information space to connect to our immediate physical surroundings. We will become transparent, we will become our environment, we let our data go, and let it wildly interact with other data. We trust in that simple entanglement will produce something good, something beautiful. The social communication protocol is only one perspective now. With each sensor and actuator we add to our body, we add another perspective that can influence our decision making and our consciousness. This liquifies, even vaporizes our personality to something that is less in our own hands, but can more and more be shaped by our direct surroundings. It doesn't matter with what we interact anymore, we simply interact. And bring the attention back to the physical world. By engaging our full attention with our embodied existence in this world where the digital has blended with the physical, then, our mind does not wander off, because it realizes that the entire universe is here already. And that it is in the present moment where everything needs to be done.

I almost expect that in the coming decade, a breakthrough mobile product will hit the market that will be massively adopted, and that connects us to our direct embodiment stance in the world again. With this headset being one of its conceptual precursors.

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