I went to go see Pinback with a friend on Thursday night. He turned to me at one point and said (well, shouted), “The bass is mixed really high!” And I shrugged: It was true, and it’s usually true at concerts. The details get lost in the vibrations; the bass becomes the music’s mud.

But as the concert went on, I got to thinking: What if the concert was all bass? Japanese roads have already been hacked to create music through vibration. Vibration is this weird, unexploited sixth sense: Somewhere between aural and haptic perception is the idea of vibration. It is an uber-sense, almost, a trans-sense.

Vibration has mostly been deployed as a blunt instrument of notification. Witness the introduction of the Rumbler Intersection Clearing System. The Rumbler is intended to “penetrate solid objects and overrun ambient noise-makers”; as a siren is heard, “the Rumbler is felt.” Robert S. Martinez, director of the NYPD’s fleet services unit told The New York Times that “the Rumbler has brought pedestrians and traffic to a dead stop every time he has tried out the test model.” The vibrate setting on your cell phone works on a different scale, but follows the same principle: Shake someone into noticing you. Mechanical touch for the digital age.

Vibration, I think, will soon become a medium through which messages are expressed rather than a message in-and-of itself. Haptic feedback has already made the jump to interactivity: Recent touchscreen phones use haptic feedback to inform the user that her touch commands have been received and understood. This is an improvement, but still an underuse of the medium; haptic feedback takes the form of one ‘dumb’ message repeated endlessly. Like txt message alerts, it is a notification of activity.


No, the future lies in deploying vibration as a full-fledged messaging medium. This could take the form of a tactile messaging vest, as developed at MIT, or exploiting our ability to feel touch by turning into a full-fledged sense. Susanna Hertrich, a PhD candidate at the Royal College of Art (UK) has created Fear Tuners, “prostheses that translate stressful data into tactile sensations that ‘simulate the autonomous nervous system.’ ” She writes:

Our sense apparatus is hardwired to deal with approaching cars, burning fires and other sudden attacks. But we do not have the right instincts to assess those abstract and deferred dangers that have a huge effect on our daily lives. How can we sense a stock market crash, the hurricane at the other end of the world or a rise of the oil price?

In the future, your Fear Tuners will let you sense a great disturbance in the Force, as if millions of voices cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced—and you won’t even need to be a Jedi. They are a way of compensating for modern signal-to-noise ratios: You incorporate the information you most need into your body, you internalize it, letting it become part of you, and you become part of it. For some reason, I find the Financial Fear Tuner most troubling; it translates inflation into “vibration generated by miniature motors attached along either side of the spine, causing cold shivers.” Aren’t we bound to our BlackBerrys enough already? What do we do when we can’t turn off our technology? When does The Grid become a cage?


[Musical roads via Kim Kommando; the Rumbler via Wired Autopia and via NYTimes; cell phone via YouTube; haptic feedback via PhoneScoop; tactile vest via BBGadgets; Fear Tuners via susannahertrich.com via BoingBoing.]