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Alertness Enhancing Device
Regine Debatty, 26 Feb 08

The theme of Susanna Hertrich's thesis at the Design Interactions department, RCA, in London, is a reflection on humans and animals in the context of "Human Enhancement": How much do we want to borrow from animals and what are the risks this would involve? How much of the animal is still living inside us? How much of the original animal that we once were has been has been lost in the evolution process?

0aaaalertdetal.jpgThe project that Susanna was showing at the work in progress show a few weeks ago is the Alertness Enhancing Device.

The risks we fear the most are often the ones most unlikely to be encountered. The human animal has lost its natural instinct for the real dangers. When worn directly on your skin, the Alertness Enhancing Device will act as a physical prosthesis for a lost natural instinct of the real fears and dangers that threaten us - as opposed to perceived risks that often cause a public outrage.

The idea is it stimulates goosebumps and shivers that go down your spine and make your neck hair stand up, waking up the alert animal inside. You become more alert and ready for the real dangers in life.

Before / after

Why would we need such device? Studies on risk perception show that many people are seriously afraid of terrorist attacks and their anxiety is heavily exploited in media and politics. A look at statistics shows that the probability of becoming a victim of terrorism is quite small. Meanwhile other real hazards are perceived as rather uninteresting and raise far less fear, for example environmental pollution or car traffic.


While we consciously know what are the things that really threatens us, we tend to dedicate much more of attention to spectacular disasters with many deaths.

That's when the Alertness Enhancing Device comes in. If you feel dispassionate and bored when reading news stories about another environmental pollution scandal, it's probably time to turn the dial of the device on.


And since it's a wearable device, you can even alert yourself in any situation, even in public contexts.

"The project is pretty much in a work-in-progress state," explains Susanna. "What I've shown in the exhibition was "just" a form prototype, but I have been experimenting with micro-current stimulations. This is quite unpleasant if placed between your shoulder blades and on your neck, but not as "in your face" as a plain electrical shocks. allows you can alter the current, so you can decide how much you can take for now. Which is how I intend this first prototype to work."

How is the project going to evolve?

"For the next version I plan to work with much more sophisticated sensations on the skin than microcurrents. The project now has shifted more into "skin as interface" and I plan to play with "apparent movement" sensations and "somatosensory illusions" as beeing explored in haptic research. I'm currently in touch with scientists in London and Tokyo to get an insight into how these things work and how I can use those techniques.
I'm not sure if the second version will work the same way as the first prototype. Probably the second version will be triggered automatically by data that is collected from some other place. I see it rather as "desktop device" than a wearable, and maybe it is something next to your door that you want to check before leaving the house. But I need decide on all the details during the next weeks..."

Thanks Susanna!

All images courtesy of Susanna Hertrich.

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Wow, old-school environmentalism rebranded! Tired of the "hairshirt" label? Bedazzle your neo-green friends out of their knee-jerk reactions with the Alertness Enhancing Device. ;-)

Posted by: Gyrus on 26 Feb 08

It's an interesting psychological experiment accompanied by fascinating data, but I seriously doubt we're going to start electro-shocking (or goosebumping, as the case may be) the skeptics into submission anytime soon... :)

Posted by: Brave New Leaf on 26 Feb 08

I don't really see how the dangers of asteroids are greater than those of terrorism.
Astroids killed nobody in the last seventy years.

I would also rate the chance of a really dangerous attack by terrorists with ABC weapons as higher as that of an asteroid hitten our planet, which would probably kill less than 100 million while a terrorist attack with ABC weapons could start WWII and kill more people.

Posted by: Brutha on 27 Feb 08

This sounds pretty pseudoscientific to me. First of all she doesn't seem to understand biology -- 100% of the animal is "still living inside us." She thinks we've lost the instincts for the "real dangers," but nearly all of the examples given are risks that have developed too recently for us ever to have had an instinct about them in the first place!

And not only have we not lost our instincts, it's those very same instincts that make us fear all the wrong things -- the technological world we've created differs from the environment we evolved in, in terms of the types of risks present. Our instincts are optimized for the wrong scenarios. This implies that enhancing those instincts might have the opposite of the intended effect.

As far as I can tell, this device doesn't make you any more aware of which risks are more important -- you had to know already in order to apply the current at the right time. Even if used as directed, there's no evidence offered as to whether the device actually has any meaningful effect at all.

OK, the hairs are standing up on the back of my neck -- so what? I don't need my fight-or-flight response activated when reading about pollution scandals. In fact studies have shown that the perception of danger can reduce my ability to reason clearly about abstract concepts -- which is exactly the skill I need to properly assess risks like pollution.

And where are the publications in psychology, neuroscience or medical journals? Where are the experimental results? Where is the theory?

It looks like this is a case where a designer is trying to make a difference but doesn't have the scientific background necessary to do so. What was the point of this device? She's just skipped all the intellectual footwork to arrive at another piece of junk that will have to be thrown into a landfill.

Posted by: Automaton on 28 Feb 08



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