Bodyhacking: Designing for New Senses

Bodyhacking opens doors to advance the human experience by enhancing or enabling entirely new senses. As an interaction designer with an RFID chip and a magnet in my hand, I wonder what the evolution of this trend holds. After all, we are increasingly designing for the medium of life.

At the second annual Bodyhacking Conference in Austin, I came across a man with an implant on his hand bigger than the size of a coin cell battery blinking with LEDs, and another with a dermal piercing giving him a buzz every time he faces north. As the term includes everything from piercings to pacemakers, many of us are considered bodyhackers in one way or another. However, some individuals represent a growing subculture of people who aim to push the limits of what the human body can adapt to by implanting different input/output mechanisms through chips and sensors into their bodies. Known as “Grinders”, devoted early adopters of bodyhacking technologies serve a strong purpose in society: to prepare us for major changes to come for humanity as biology merges with technology.

The North Star implant, by Grindhouse Wetware.

(The North Star implant, by Grindhouse Wetware.)

Not everyone is willing to experiment with their bodies like this yet. However, a portion of the trends seen at the Bodyhacking Conference will inevitably become mainstream; the question is how and when. We are witnessing the first clumsy steps of technology and biology working in symbiosis, harmonizing with our natural interactions. If art is asking questions and design is answering them, the notion that bodyhacking will shift to the mainstream fits right there in between. Here is a look at emerging bodyhacking use cases and the design challenges they pose.

Sensory Augmentation

Imagine you could actually sense the presence of iron and power because a small neodymium magnet strategically has been placed by your fingertip to capitalize on the density of your touch receptors. Imagine being able to pick up jewelry with a magnetic touch, instead of with a grab. Welcome to my life, where suddenly I get surprised by a little tickle in my finger when I do small things like open the fridge or pick up my headphones. Of course, the practicality of my implant comes into question when I can feel which wires are live and dead when prototyping, or even if my phone is charging.

Technology has allowed us to use our tools as a form of surrogate sensory system, in turn leading to the mind being less in the head. This convergence of space and body impacts the psychology of the self. Sensory expansion is allowing us to step out of our anthropocentric view and access the world through new means – expanding our sense of self, our “Umwelt,” or the biological foundations that lie at the center of the study of both communication and signification in a particular organism. This expansion is making us more empathetic beings, and should make us more empathetic designers.

Sensory Substitution

When filmmaker Rob Spence enters a room, it is hard not to notice the red LED light in place of his pupil. It becomes immediately clear why he calls himself the “Eyeborg.” It will only be a matter of time before prices of this technology drops so those with strong vision can opt for special eye enhancements, such as recording video like he does, zooming in to take a closer look or full on terminator vision.

Paul Bach-y-Rita is one of the pioneers in sensory substitution, which is the practice of turning one sense into a superpower due to lack of another. He was also the first person to bring the plasticity of the mind to our collective attention. Back in 1969, he proved sensory substitution was possible. In 2015, his wife got FDA approval for an evolution of his old experiment, called the BrainPort. Now, the seeing-impaired can get a haptic interface on their tongue that allows them to see. After only 10 hours of training during the course of four days, people with the device can start to recognize basic objects.

Another sensory substitution device is from a company called NeoSensory. Designed for the deaf community, it translates sound into haptics through a vest people can wear. After a few weeks, VEST wearers can comprehend sentences and fully adopt this new sense.

As we discover how adaptive the mind is by exploring its plug-and-play nature, we are able to ponder which senses we can translate into touch, sound or light. With good training programs to help us integrate our new senses, the possibilities are vast. By applying design thinking, we can make the learning curve more intuitive, and lower the barrier to entry for these devices.

Self Expression

ORLAN ‘s “Carnal Art Manifesto” was written well over two decades ago, but represents technology that is trickling down to a wider public today. She states: “Carnal Art swings between disfiguration and refiguration. Its inscription in the flesh is a function of our age. The body has become a “modified ready-made”, no longer seen as the ideal it once represented …” This aesthetic approach to technology is now being adopted by both artists and the fashion industry. Perhaps ORLAN inspired Lady Gaga’s “facial prosthetics”? Everything from “Firefly Tattoos” which use the decay of tritium gas to make glow-in-the-dark implants and NFC nails that light up close to a reader on your phone are making it to the catwalk and are all over the internet.

bodyhacking NFC nails

Barriers to Mainstream Adoption

There are still quite a few hurdles to jump before these devices can become mainstream. From a marketing aspect, companies will need to help potential customers overcome the mental barrier of breaking the skin to insert an implant.

Users must also feel assured they are not being tracked or hacked. Grinders design these devices for independent hackers to tinker with, which makes them unsafe by their very nature as there are no added safety protocols. That said, it is not easy to hack one of these devices. For example, if potential hackers wanted to see the tiny text string of info on my chip so that they could break into my home, they would have had to have gotten very close—they would have been much better off picking my door lock.

In terms of privacy, corporations will surely want to mine any data collected from these implants. Most likely, companies will offer users the option to get compensated for their data. Yet, to advance the field, users need to feel assured they have ownership of their data, especially as the technology lives in their own bodies. It is a scary thought to have one of your biological parts potentially branded by a company.

Since the first person was “chipped” in 1998, we have come a long way in terms of adoption. There is a whole movement dedicated to this now. In ten to twenty years, most wearables will likely be implants. However, these devices will need to become interconnected to become popular. Apple allows us to text our heartbeats today, but in a few years we might adopt someone else’s heartbeat as an additional sense, possibly to adopt a sense for the proximity of a child or loved one. Personal privacy is an issue, but it appears society is willing to consider the advantages than disadvantages of this kind of intimate data sharing.

From Prototype to Phenotype

More than ever, design research and a thorough understanding of the human body will be crucial. Personas and archetypes give us insight into how individuals with their unique personalities and body compositions might adapt and use their new sense or skill. Without proper user testing, who knows what the social implications might be? We will need to find methods to prototype these experiences, but much of the problem lies in our lack of knowledge in how the human brain works. We need to map out what encodings the brain likes for these devices, not unlike anthropometry maps out our ergonomic compositions.

Placement on the body and how the body moves is crucial. For the VEST, NeoSensory strategically chose the chest and torso because of the underutilized nerve endings at those specific locations. Although mine did migrate, RFID chips are placed in that soft tissue between the thumb and index finger.

User interfaces have traditionally been designed to be understood, not interpreted, but this will change as bodyhacking becomes more mainstream. The same app or implant could morph according to your individual needs using intelligent systems and anticipatory design. However, it will be crucial for us to avoid and educate about dark patterns – those that trick users into doing something they did not intend, like purchasing or sharing something. Rather, we need to emphasize decision making and allow users agency in these delicate situations.

So, how do we design for these new senses in an ethical, sustainable and safe manner? There are things we can do to prepare us with the skills of the future today. Namely, we can integrate intersecting disciplines and maintain rigor in the scientific method of design research. As a dematerialization of design increasingly complements the traditional notion of design, we are approaching a new design paradigm.

Looking forward to when bodyhacking becomes more mainstream, designers need to emphasize and consider sociological consequences and neuroscience as a biological medium early in the design process. Hence, seeing the object as phenotype rather than prototype allows for a shift in attention from the art of construction to the art of use. Truly, designers are increasingly becoming the social engineers of life.

Fabiola Einhorn
Interaction designer
Fabiola Einhorn
Fabiola Einhorn
Interaction designer

Fabiola is a Swedish interaction designer at frog Austin. Her work examines forgotten or hidden truths about the human condition and its relationship to technology. An extensive background in healthcare product and service design informs her explorations on the future of body augmentation. She truly believes technology must be in service of design and can help the greater good.

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