Transformations for Experience


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Sam Hill

10th January 2013

A while back I mentioned our theory-in-progress: that there are two kinds of design intervention that can improve the human experience. The first are designed ‘events’: finite moments in time, with their own contexts, during which things happen. Lots of people work in producing consumable experiential events, even if they don’t necessarily view them this way – certainly performers, game makers and interaction designers do; but also musicians, film-makers, artists, restaurateurs, etc. etc.

The other intervention type, however, is a little bit trickier and much less common. These are transformations, or augmentations – finding constant, passive, sustainable ways of being. How do you squeeze more life out of everyday living? We’ve identified three broad categories of transformation that would allow the collection of more experience value: sensory augmentation, memory augmentation and attitudinal re-evaluation.


1. Sensory Augmentation

Sensory Augmentation is ‘improving’ the way we interpret the world, which could be done in many ways:

Augmenting our existing senses

We could, theoretically, take our existing senses and improve them with the following abilities:

  • Perceiving beyond our current range, e.g. our vision does not include infra-red or ultra-violet light; our hearing capacity is restricted to a narrow band of frequencies)
  • Detecting things from greater distances (e.g. sharpness of vision, smelling blood in the water that originates from far away)
  • Distinguishing subtle differences between similar sensory inputs (e.g. tasting different varieties of grape in wines, or being able to sing pitch-perfectly)
  • Isolating a particular element amongst broad and varied sources (e.g. picking out a particular voice in a bar)
  • Processing input more quickly (e.g. seeing movement at a faster “frame-rate”, as many birds can)
  • Discerning subtle rates of change (in temperature, light, speed)
  • Observing in a broader directional field (e.g. having greater peripheral vision)

Here’s part of a larger Mezzmer info-graphic doing the rounds. It illustrates how awesomely badass the mantis shrimp’s vision is, relative to ours:


Senses seen in other Animals, not analogous to human senses

With the aid of developing tech, we might be able to equip ourselves with entirely new senses, inspired by other organisms in nature, such as:

  • echo-location, such as that used by bats, or dolphins (granted, some people have mastered echo-location too)
  • chemical detection via a vomeronasal organ, like in snakes
  • electroreception, as seen in sharks
  • magnetoception, as seen in birds

Data-centric Augmentation:

Contextual data could aid our perception and navigation of the social, human-constructed world:

  • universal translators and other aids for communication
  • diagrammatic vision – abstract visualisation of intangible things e.g. showing the electric field around an object, or the presence of radiation
  • annotated vision – providing ancillary data about things seen

Non-naturally occuring senses – including the fantastical

  • “x-ray” vision – seeing ‘through’ solid things
  • thermography – perceiving temperature (edit: some snakes have a crude form of this)
  • tele-sensation – tactile sensation from a distance, perhaps through an avatar/ slave-sensor
  • telepathy – non-verbal/ non-physical communication

Gregory McRoberts used an Arduino Lilypad, ultrasonic and infrared sensors to augment his partially-sighted eye to provide distance and temperature data


But… Would Sense Augmentation Really Increase Experience Value?

We’re postulating on the fly, to be honest. It makes sense that if sensory capacity was enhanced, one would get more from life, but we don’t really have any evidence to back this up. So perhaps we should consider it an opportunity for discourse. There are after all couple of considerations…

The first consideration is feasibility. Can we improve our capacity for greater sensation? Perhaps, even with the greatest bionic and genetic development we couldn’t enhance our senses beyond a certain limiting factor. Even if we could, it seems our minds can only process a finite amount of sensory stimulation at once.

The second consideration is: should we seek to augment our senses? They are, after all, a product of our evolution and should (you’d think) be somewhat attuned to our needs – we’ve actually lost some superfluous ancestral sensory abilities, such as a stronger olfactory ability, as recently as the last couple of hundred-thousand years. It may be that not only does further sensory development fail to provide an evolutionary edge, but possessing it could even reduce quality of life.

For example, Gregory McRoberts says that anyone trying to use his eye-patch on a fully-functioning eye suffers from a form of ‘Helmet fire’ – a term coined in aviation, where stress-induced task saturation, exacerbated by helmet HUDs, impedes pilots abilities to function and make decisions.

See also the clip below of ‘binocular soccer’ – even though binoculars are an accepted form of visual augmentation, if they can’t integrate passively and sympathetically with the other demands of our vision (depth perception and peripheral awareness) they also have an impeding effect:


2. Memory Augmentation

Specifically, enhancing experience would require augmenting Autobiographical memory; episodic memory in particular – recollecting times, places, associated emotions, and other contextual knowledge.

Augmenting Human memory would involve affecting our ability to:

  • record memories – encoding experiences exhaustively, with depth and detail
  • retain memories – remembering experiences for longer/ indefinitely
  • recall memories – have access to memories easily, quickly, entirely, accurately

Pragmatically this can be done in part through existing stuff – tools (such as cameras), systems (such as diaries) or techniques (such as mnemonics), but conceivably, it could perhaps be achievable in the future through genetics or neural-interfacing bionics.

Of course, the experiences themselves aren’t enhanced, but the memories of them are more exactly and comprehensively stored – so all memories would retain more experiential value.

Some people already have superior autobiographical memory – the condition is known as Hyperthymesia and is incredibly rare. People possessing the condition can recall every detail of their lives with as much accuracy as if it’d happened moments ago. Once again, however, we need to question if this capability really improves the human experience. The condition isn’t always regarded as a ‘blessing’; some affected experience it as a burden, and many spend a great deal of time dwelling on the past. The condition challenges the traditional notion of what healthy memory is, prompting the attitude “it isn’t just about retaining the significant stuff. Far more important is being able to forget the rest.” [(via Wikipedia) Rubin, D. C., Schrauf, R. W., & Greenberg, D. L. (2003). Belief and recollection of autobiographical memories. Memory and Cognition, 31, 887–901.]


3. Attitudinal Change/ Value Re-assessment

Finally, sense- and memory-augmentation won’t reap much benefit for any individual unless they have a sincere interest in exploiting such capacity to gain more experience value.

Attitudinal change, based on a reassessment of values, is a much less technology-orientated intervention. Instead it is a cognitive shift; a willingness to perceive ones environment more actively, and with a greater attention to detail.

On the one hand, this can be thought of as a learned skill. Sherlock Holmes, for example, is the archetypal ‘observer’ – someone who is ceaselessly, lucidly, taking in the details around him, analysing them and extracting wisdom. On the other hand, there is also a broader philosophical element, or at the very least a set of arguments – statements for why seeking out and making the most of life’s variety is of benefit to us.

To cause a change in attitude and behaviour would require:

  • Learning how to stand back during autobiographical events and and have an absolute, lucid, sensory attentiveness to what’s happening.
  • Being able to objectively reflect on one’s own motivations, decisions, actions and emotional state.
  • Training emotional and intellectual post-analysis (reflection, critiquing)
  • understanding why it is desirable to maximise one’s experiences

People talk about an ability to “live in the now”. Often it is seen as a good thing, though sometimes the phrase is used pejoratively to imply an inability to see the consequences of actions. It is contrasted with both those obsessed with and living inside of their memories, and those who cannot appreciate the here and now because they are constantly looking for the next thing.


Mindfulness‘ is an essential tenet of Buddhism. Considered to be one of the seven factors for achieving spiritual enlightenment, it is a ready-made, tried-and-tested tool kit for gaining a greater appreciation of one’s environment. Mindfulness teaches both the importance of being aware, as well as providing instructions into how to achieve such a state. Unavoidably, it’s is a very trendy concept in the west at the moment, mainly because it’s lessons can also be applied as a form of cognitive therapy, to help temper conditions such as anxiety, depression and stress.

From our perspective, the applicable teachings of Mindfulness are very interesting, and as we continue to investigate them we’re keen to see what can be learned. However, without wanting to diminish it’s spiritual salience, nor the significance of being able to help therapeutically, as experience designers we need to be sure we can (if possible) isolate the processes from the spiritual.


Experiential Research?

‘Medicine’ is an enormous branch of applied science; a collection of inter-related but distinct areas of study, implicitly dedicated (arguments for quality of life to one side) to the goal of prolonging human life, through countering disease, environmental harm or genetic conditions.

Imagine if there was another contrasting branch of science, called Experiential Research. Experiential research might be considered to have the same ultimate purpose as medicine, but with an approach pivoted at 90 degrees. That ultimate goal being to fit more living into a life, but the change in tact being to get more intensity of living into each minute, rather than increasing the number of minutes.

Obviously, the underlying sciences already exist – biochemistry, bionics, cybernetics, genetics, psychology, neurology, human-system interfaces and data visualisation. The concepts of “body-hacking”, or “super-senses” are not new either. But if there was more collaboration across these disciplines, with the aim of creating new transformative interventions, then perhaps we could all reap the benefits of new capabilities and new perspectives.