We’re surrounded by intangible information. Every second of the day, radio waves resonate encrypted messages through our walls, furniture, and skulls. And to translate this omnipresent flood, we pick up our phones or open our laptops, pressing endless buttons while staring into screens. It’s one of the great problems with interfaces today—and one not necessarily solved by something like the Apple Watch, which really just shrinks the screen for your wrist.
In response, the Interactive Architecture Lab at the Bartlett School of Architecture created a project called Sarotis. It’s a provocative proof-of-concept of what our world could be like if our bodies could feel data rather than simply see it.
The device, highlighted on Prosthetic Knowledge, is made from silicone to wrap around a person’s leg, arm, and neck. It's pneumatic, meaning it can be triggered to inflate and deflate based on how it is programmed to respond to the world around it. The soft material gently pushes against the wearer's own body, acting almost as a second skin that reacts to the word around us. (The images you see, of fluid flowing through the device, are a more artful speculation on where the technology could go next.)
What does it sense, exactly? The team was specifically testing whether Sarotis could enhance and augment one’s perception of architecture. For instance, they used Google’s Project Tango to create a map of a large room. Then, they "drew" an invisible path inside of it digitally, blindfolded participants, and had them walk through it wearing Sarotis—which had been programmed to guide them based on tactile feedback. Not only could they make it through in just a few minutes, but afterwards, participants were able to reproduce the zigzagging path in a sketch. The results, while imperfect, weren't bad when you consider people were asked to draw something that was literally invisible.
At this point, it’s hard to imagine exactly how Sarotis would fit into our world. After all, our phones already vibrate to tell us when we have an email or text, which is probably the most popular way that quiet haptics have been accepted into modern user interface. Still, I could see Sarotis being used in dangerous areas, like construction sites, where many people at once are managing countless tasks. If the system was connected enough to monitor everyone and everything, a Sarotis-style prosthesis could warn users of danger, essentially signaling that because a welder was now working overhead, the safety level of their environment had changed.
But perhaps the larger potential impact of Sarotis is best demonstrated by its earliest experiment—when a person wore the prostheses for a full 36 hours. "At first she was not comfortable enough with the existence of a pressure-based device on her neck," the team explains. But after just a few hours, "the user started to bond and couple with the device." Soon, she reported that an even larger prosthesis would be fine to try.
In other words, as stifling as a second skin that "feels" the unseen forces in our environment may seem today, we may be remarkably apt to adjust to one tomorrow.