Perceptual chauvinism

I read two articles in a row today that use unnecessary quotation marks, which expose that strange discomfort with writing about touch I have written about before. As humans we hold our feelings dear, so we don’t like to say that any other beings can feel. Especially plants, for chrissake:

Plants are incredibly temperature sensitive and can perceive changes of as little as one degree Celsius. Now, a report shows how they not only “feel” the temperature rise, but also coordinate an appropriate response—activating hundreds of genes and deactivating others; it turns out it’s all about the way that their DNA is packaged.

The author can’t simply say that plants can feel, so instead he writes “feel,” indicating a figurative sense of the word. Why? Because the word ‘feel’ implies some amount of consciousness. (In fact I have argued that ‘feeling’ signifies a baseline for the existence of a subject.) Only the animal kingdom gets feeling privileges.

And then, in another article posted on Science Daily, we have a similar example, but this one is even more baffling. The context is that research has shown that playing Mozart to premature infants can have measurable positive effects on development:

A new study… has found that pre-term infants exposed to thirty minutes of Mozart’s music in one session, once per day expend less energy—and therefore need fewer calories to grow rapidly—than when they are not “listening” to the music

In the study, Dr. Mandel and Dr. Lubetzky and their team measured the physiological effects of music by Mozart played to pre-term newborns for 30 minutes. After the music was played, the researchers measured infants’ energy expenditure again, and compared it to the amount of energy expended when the baby was at rest. After “hearing” the music, the infant expended less energy, a process that can lead to faster weight gain.

Not allowing plants to feel is one thing. And I can even understand the discomfort with writing that newborns are listening to music, because that may imply they are attending to it, which is questionable. But why can’t human babies be said to hear music? This is the strangest case of perceptual chauvinism I have yet come across.

Meet physical addiction with physical destruction

Smokers who crushed computer-simulated cigarettes… had significantly reduced nicotine dependence and higher rates of tobacco abstinence than smokers participating in the same program who grasped a computer-simulated ball…

Other notable findings include the following: smokers who crushed virtual cigarettes tended to stay in the treatment program longer (average time to drop-out > 8 weeks) than the ball-grasping group (< 6 weeks). At the 6-month follow-up, 39% of the cigarette crushers reported not smoking during the previous week, compared to 20% of the ball graspers.

Laser Doppler Vibrometry in triage

Vibration sensors help EMTs take vital signs from a distance of five to 40 feet:

Because time is the most precious resource in a crisis, every second shaved can be a life-saver. With this in mind, S&T wants to make a revolutionary leap forward in triage. Why not 30 seconds per person? And why not from a distance?

Laser Doppler Vibrometry [has] been used in aircraft and automotive components, acoustic speakers, radar technology, and landmine detection. When connected to a camera, the vibrometer can measure the velocity and displacement of vibrating objects. An algorithm then converts those data points into measurements emergency medical responders can use in their rapid assessment of a patient’s critical medical conditions.

Interaction powered by humans

Popular Science writes about harvesting energy from human movement:

The Bionic Energy Harvester can produce enough power from a one-minute walk to juice a cell phone for 30 minutes. The generator sits on your knee and gathers energy toward the end of your step, when your leg begins to brake.

There may be a lot of potential here, but most of the article talks about the ability to charge a phone, which just doesn’t seem that exciting. But this is cool:

Soon, we might not even have to consciously move to create power. Wang is working on a polymer film that would surround his power-generating fibers and allow them to be implanted into our bodies. There they would harvest kinetic energy from the steady dilation and contraction of blood vessels, providing a source of electricity for pacemakers, insulin pumps and other medical devices—making for a truly powerful breakthrough.

There are also some innovative musical applications:

Dance clubs are also getting in on the action. In the Netherlands, Rotterdam’s new Club WATT has a floor that harnesses the energy created by the dancers’ steps. Designed by a Dutch company called the Sustainable Dance Club, the floor is based on the piezoelectric effect, in which certain materials produce an electric current when compressed or bent… As clubgoers dance, the [floor] generates anywhere from two to 20 watts of electricity, depending on the impact of the patrons’ feet. For now, it’s just enough to power LED lights in the floor, but in the future, more output is expected from newer technology. In London, Surya, another new eco-nightclub, uses the same principle for its dance floor, which the owners hope will one day generate 60 percent of the club’s electricity.

Using piezo materials in a dance floor to power a real-time interaction is more inspiring than using it to provide some percentage of the venue’s electricity. To me, the LED floor implies a revolution of environment, in its Gibsonian sense, not environmentalism. Here’s more about Club WATT:


n. a palpable vibration on the human body.

  • Hepatic fremitus is a vibration felt over a person’s liver. It is thought to be caused by a severely inflamed and necrotic liver rubbing up against the peritoneum.
  • Hydatid fremitus is a vibratory sensation felt on palpating a hydatid cyst.
  • Pericardial fremitus is a vibration felt on the chest wall due to the friction of the surfaces of the pericardium over each other.
  • Periodontal fremitus occurs in either of the alveolar bones when an individual sustains trauma from occlusion. It is a result of teeth exhibiting at least slight mobility rubbing against the adjacent walls of their sockets, the volume of which has been expanded ever so slightly by inflammatory responses, bone resorption or both.
  • Pleural fremitus is a palpable vibration of the wall of the thorax caused by friction between the parietal and visceral pleura of the lungs.
  • Rhonchal fremitus, also known as bronchial fremitus, is a palpable vibration produced during breathing caused by partial airway obstruction.
  • Subjective fremitus is a vibration felt by a person who hums with the mouth closed.
  • Tussive fremitus is a vibration felt on the chest when a person coughs.
  • Vocal Fremitus, also called pectoral fremitus, or tactile vocal fremitus, is a vibration felt on a person’s chest during low frequency vocalization.

(via Wikipedia)

Sterile gestural interface

A great example of smart interaction design: touch-free gestural interfaces for hospital displays:

“A sterile human-machine interface is of supreme importance because it is the means by which the surgeon controls medical information, avoiding patient contamination, the operating room (OR) and the other surgeons.” This could replace touch screens now used in many hospital operating rooms which must be sealed to prevent accumulation or spreading of contaminants and requires smooth surfaces that must be thoroughly cleaned after each procedure — but sometimes aren’t.

Interesting sidenote: the fact that we associate touch with contagion in our culture is encoded in the words we use. Contagion literally means “with touch.”