Adding the SixthSense: A Natural (or Unnatural) Progression

Technology + Gear
by Michelle Schusterman Sep 16, 2010

From MIT Media Labs comes a device that all but erases the line between virtual and reality.

A few weeks ago, I would have sci-fi geeked out over this demo in a major way. Pattie Maes and Pranav Mistry showed off the SixthSense at TED; a device constructed from $350 worth of off-the-shelf items, including a camera, a portable projector, a mirror, a cell phone and colored marker caps. Check out the video to see how this creation makes your world augmented reality.

Okay, I did geek out. It’s pretty damn cool. But over the last few weeks, I’ve become very aware of how much I rely on my smartphone and laptop, and how much time I spend online. I’m cutting back. Which is why the thought of seeing Amazon reviews displayed when I’m browsing books at the library, or statistics about a person scroll up his shirt when I meet him on the street, freaks me out a bit.

In her impressive presentation, Pattie Maes brings up a few points:

What if we could develop a sixth sense – a sense that would give us seamless, easy access to meta-information that may be relevant to help us make the right decision?

When you meet someone for the first time, you don’t shake his hand and say “Can you hold on a moment while I take out my phone and Google you?”

When you’re standing in the supermarket trying to choose a brand of toilet paper, you don’t pull out your phone and search for which is the most ecologically responsible.

We don’t have easy access to all of this relevant information that can help us make optimal decisions about what actions to take.

And I can’t help but think…this is true, but do we want this access?

A lot of the comments on this video mention Minority Report – you can feel as cool as Tom Cruise with this device! It’s been awhile since I’ve seen that movie, but what I remember more than ‘coolness’ is a feeling of oppression.

What is more human – data, or instinct?
And if it’s more human, does that make it more real? I don’t want to Google strangers to see how many children they have or what their favorite drink is or where they work. I don’t want to have my decisions on toilet paper or apartments or dog breeds or anything made for me instantaneously with a digital display. I want to have conversations and read labels and use my head and my heart to make decisions.

A concern about smartphones I’ve heard frequently is that the constant connection impedes our ability to make decisions, to think, to be creative. What would happen when technology became this much a part of us – just short of implantation?

What do you think? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

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