Press Gently, or just press hard? Our bodies have these perceptions that have evolved with previous technologies — things like when to blink, what to eat, how fast to walk, how to walk at the speed of light, how to talk, how to swallow, how to squeeze a straw, and the size of keys that we then use in the modern age. A new project from the MIT Media Lab makes clear how complex these concepts are; a device — that looks like a button-size scanner but performs a whole host of tasks — is then pictured in more than 100 biologically derived ways. The inspiration behind the machine is the influence of embodiment on the senses.

“Folded hands perceive higher volumes of touch,” the researchers say. Another example: A hand object feels soft when opened but hard when closed. Pressing harder makes the object become softer. We also often perceive foods as receiving different vibrations when we bite into them — but so do flavors and textures, which are also present when biting into air.

While some of these limits in the senses may be practical (it would be impossible to hold a wing sleeve in both hands all day) the developers believe many of them remain invisible, because we have not been taught to make the physical world such that they matter. “We don’t quite think about the impact of our physical experience of objects,” the researchers say.

The paper’s title is Specific Work on Place and Place: A Neural Approach, which was published recently in the Science of Mind. The paper has drawn interest and criticisms across media. The New York Times called it a “fascinating experiment,” and one that is “almost, almost fascinating.” Others, however, have pointed out the limitations of a given device’s innovation in a certain application (the image below is part of a movement to make beautiful images of average features).


The researchers at MIT also created a 2015 paper to trace our cultural obsession with our bodies. That exhibit explored the widespread perception that our bodies and emotions lie outside of us. Some researchers see the “attachment to the corporeal” as a way to understand communication between people, and argue that “the role of bodily states in human communication is a much deeper one than the literal body would suggest.”

The project that drew the most criticism was a series on the first known eye move, named the pivot of the eye, by Dr. Melanie Azer, a researcher at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute. Azer noticed many people were claiming to see the pivot as shifting in a specific way — but in the various tests she conducted, she only discovered one effect: Blinking while viewing the pivot. Her study concluded: “Some eye movements are natural and predictable … Whereas in the typical natural gesture, people interpret different parts of the movement in different ways.”

While the research on the present attention device’s ability to interpret any and all sensory inputs is new, it may still provoke debate. Further questions may arise as researchers get more comfortable with the tool and try to understand what it allows us to see.

What do you think about physical objects?


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