VibraVest/ThinkTank: Existential Technology of Synthetic Synesthesia for the Visually Challenged

Steve Mann


The entire article appears in: The Eighth International Symposium on Electronic Arts Art Institute of Chicago Sept. 22 -27. now the www site has moved to:


Existential technology (existech) is an attempt at defining a technological framework for self-determination and mastery over one's own destiny. The physical embodiment of existech grew out of an interest in expressive photography, the tools of which I re-situated as extensions of my mind and body. This work gave rise to my WearComp invention of the 1970s (described in which has more recently culminated in my "Wearable Wireless Webcam".

WearComp has three characteristics I call Ephemeral, Existential, and Eudaemonic.

Ephemeral: The apparatus operates interactively (directly into my perceptual reality stream). It's not something I pull out of my pocket, turn on, boot up, and then finally interact with.

Existential: The apparatus is ``empowering'' to the wearer rather than ``enslaving''. An extreme example of this dichotomy is the synergy of enslavement arising from the remotely-controlled wearable pain-giving device attached to prisoners to make them into obedient ``cyborgs'', versus technologies like the Sony Walkman which empower us with the ability to construct our own musical environment despite environmental control such as Muzak which may otherwise be foisted upon us against our free will.

Eudaemonic: The apparatus is situated in my own personal space, in the sense that I regard it as part of me, and others do as well. Negative example: if you walk into a department store, they often ask you to leave bags and briefcases at the front desk. Clothing is much more eudaemonic, and is thus a more natural place to put such an apparatus.

The apparatus is typically worn on/in/under clothing, sewn directly into clothing, or becomes clothing. The latter case may be implemented in either an additive (e.g. sewing in conductive thread or the like) or subtractive form. The subtractive form may be implemented using conductive cloth, of which I have identified four kinds which I call BC1, IC1, BC2, IC2 (conductive one direction, and conductive in both directions, either bare or insulated, respectively). Ordinary cloth I call C0. Smart clothing may have multiple layers, e.g. BC2 as RF shield, followed by two IC1 layers oriented at right angles. This allows components to be "wired" together into something that's unobtrusive even to the new see-through-clothing security cameras (by virtue of BC2).

VibraVest/ThinkTank is a computational tank top that is worn, in close contact to the body, under ordinary clothing, to afford a synthetic synesthesia of a new sensory modality, namely radar, which gets translated to "feel". The chirplet transform, and other DSP methodology may detect targets accelerating toward the wearer, helping him or her avoid bumping into things, and similarly make the wearer blind to targets that are moving away, solving the "information overload" problem.

I originally developed this personal imaging system as art, to "see" in new ways, and to experience new forms of reality, but my hope is that this invention could also some day be of use to the visually challenged.

I will present this and other forms of existech that function as tools of self-determination and mastery over one's own personal space.