• 05.10.11

Imagine A Phantom Recorder That Stores And Plays Back Physical Sensations For Amputees

Revital Cohen does it again, with a conceptual medical device that reimagines phantom limb sensations as nostalgic memories.

Imagine A Phantom Recorder That Stores And Plays Back Physical Sensations For Amputees

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’ve already seen Revital Cohen’s freaky-but-functional conceptual designs, which reimagine medical devices as interactive art installations. Here’s another doozy: Phantom Recorder, a contraption that amputees could conceivably use to “record and keep their phantom [limb] sensation, to be awoken on request.” It may look like a bong from Woody Allen’s Sleeper, but the idea is certainly intriguing.


Scientists have developed an implant that will let nerves re-grow onto terminals.

Before you scoff at the concept, consider that (as usual) Cohen has grounded her fanciful design in a firm bedrock of facts. She created Phantom Recorder in collaboration with scientists from The Cambridge Center for Brain Repair, “in response in response to the implant they are developing – a regenerative peripheral nerve interface,” she tells Co.Design. “They experiment with the implant prototype, [but] I would obviously not be allowed to, and I was working out my concept through discussions with the team based on their experiments.”

Cohen’s concept is based on the increasingly un-out-there idea of brain/machine interfaces, in which the human nervous system is directly linked in a feedback loop with an electronic device. The scientists who inspired Cohen developed an implant that will let nerves associated with a missing limb re-grow onto terminals which can register their electrical activity and control assistive devices or prosthetics.


Cohen, of course, took the idea in a totally different direction. “As strategies for repair focus on practical solutions, they tend to overlook poetic functions of our body,” she writes. “This neural implant enables sensations to be inserted to the device, or for activity to be recorded from movements. Could we use this technology to record illusions of the mind?”

“Could we use this technology to record illusions of the mind?”

The Phantom Recorder’s giant spheroid prosthetic is used to create a cold, damp sensation on the skin where an amputee’s limb once was, “triggering the brain to hallucinate a phantom [limb].” (Supposedly.) The nerve impulses created by this stimulation are captured by the implant and transmitted wirelessly to a computer for storage. The weirder idea is that these digital signals can also be played back by sending the data to the implant, which stimulates the attached nerves, “allowing the nerves to recreate the sensation of the telescoped phantom hand, the fourth feet or the split arm.” (Supposedly.)


Cohen has said before that her designs are meant to provoke interesting conversations more than actually function as prototypes, and Phantom Limb seems to fit the bill. For one thing, phantom limbs are often something that amputees want to be rid of, not enshrine as digital keepsakes. In fact, neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran has implemented his own ingenious way to access, control, and “replay” these phantom sensations so that they can be extinguished for good: a simple mirror. It’s not as pretty as Cohen’s “Phantom Recorder,” but it works.

[Read more at Revital Cohen’s website]

About the author

John Pavlus is a writer and filmmaker focusing on science, tech, and design topics. His writing has appeared in Wired, New York, Scientific American, Technology Review, BBC Future, and other outlets.