What new senses would you like to have available to you?

Often when new technology first becomes widely available, the initial limits are in the collective imagination, not in the technology itself (case in point: the internet). New sensory channels have a huge potential because the brain can process senses much faster and more intuitively than most conscious thought processes.

There are a lot of recent "proof of concept" inventions that show that it is possible to create new sensory channels for humans with and without surgery. The most well known and simple example is an implanted magnet, which would alert you to magnetic fields (the trade-off being that you could never have an MRI). Cochlear implants are the most widely used human-created sensory channels (they send electrical signals directly to the nervous system, bypassing the ear entirely), but CIs are designed to emulate a sensory channel most people already have brain space allocated to. VEST is another example. Similar to CIs, VEST (versatile extra-sensory transducer) has 24 information channels, and uses audio compression to encode sound. Unlike CIs, they are not implanted in the skull but instead information is relayed through vibrating motors on the torso. After a few hours of training, deaf volunteers are capable of word recognition using the vibrations alone, and to do so without conscious processing. Much like hearing, the users are unable to describe exactly what components make a spoken word intelligible, they just understand the sensory information intuitively. Another recent invention being tested (with success) is BrainPort glasses, which send electrical signals through the tongue (which is one of the most sensitive organs on the body). Blind people can begin processing visual information with this device within 15 minutes, and it is unique in that it is not implanted. The sensory information feels like pop rocks at first before the brain is able to resolve it into sight. Niel Harbisson (who is colorblind) has custom glasses which use sound tones to relay color information. Belts that vibrate when facing north give people an sense of north. Bottlenose can be built at home and gives a very primitive sense of echolocation. As expected, these all work better if people start young as children. 

What are the craziest and coolest new senses you would like to see available using this new technology? I think VEST at least is available from Kickstarter and one of the inventors suggested that it could be that it could be programmed to transmit any kind of data. My initial ideas which I heard about this possibility are just are senses that some unusual people already have or expansions on current senses. I think the real game changers are going to be totally knew senses unrelated to our current sensory processing. Translating data into sensory information gives us access to intuition and processing speed otherwise unavailable. 

My initial weak ideas:

  • mass spectrometer (uses reflected lasers to determine the exact atomic makeup of anything and everything)
  • proximity meter (but I think you would begin to feel like you had a physical aura or field of influence)
  • WIFI or cell signal
  • perfect pitch and perfect north, both super easy and only need one channel of information (an smartwatch app?)
  • infrared or echolocation
  • GPS (this would involve some serious problem solving to figure out what data we should encode given limited channels, I think it could be done with 4 or 8 channels each associated with a cardinal direction)

Someone working with VEST suggested:

  • compress global twitter sentiments into 24 channels. Will you begin to have an intuitive sense of global events?
  • encode stockmarket data. Will you become an intuitive super-investor?
  • encode local weather data (a much more advanced version of "I can feel it's going to rain in my bad knee)

Some resources for more information:


  • https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/324375300/vest-a-sensory-substitution-neuroscience-project
  • http://www.radiolab.org/story/seeing-tongues/
  • http://www.ted.com/talks/neil_harbisson_i_listen_to_color?language=en
  • http://www.fastcompany.com/3001309/biohackers-and-diy-cyborgs-clone-silicon-valley-innovation
  • https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1X1mry35ykQ



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I have tried:

  • Wearing a vibrating compass anklet for a week. It improved my navigational skills tremendously. I have low income, but I would definitely buy one if I could afford it.

  • Listening to a 60 bpm metronome on a Bluetooth earpiece for a week (excluding showers). I got used to the sound relatively quickly, but I most definitely did not acquire an absolute sense of time. However, I noticed that during boring activities such as filling out paperwork, the ticking itself seems to slow down.

I will try:

  • Wearing an Oculus Rift that shows the Fourier Transform of what I would normally see. I'd like to know if I can get used to it, and if it improves my mathematical intuition.
Did you find the navigational skills lingered when you were in the same places (i.e. if you wore it around campus, you would then have a good map of campus) or did the improvement in skill disappear when you stopped wearing it?

The skills lingered, and for some amount of time, I was able to "feel" where the compass would be pointing in many places I visited while wearing the anklet.

From memory, I'm still able to tell the general direction of the magnetic north in many places.

I would love to buy an already assembled anklet or belt vibrating compass that can fit both a child and adult for <$200.
I think the pre-assembled NorthPaw is available for $199 + shipping.
I found a NorthPaw for ~$150, but it was an unassembled kit. It seems likely you could find someone willing to do the assembly for $50 (Smith has an engineering school).
There's a kit on thinkgeek, but it's not already assembled and it's super ugly.
Wasn't there something like that on Kickstarter?
I bought a NorthPaw last year but got very little out of it. I wondered if perhaps my local environment is simply not navigationally challenging enough; what sort of place were you using your haptic compass?
Mainly in the city of Edinburgh, HW campus and the Lothians. It worked well inside college buildings with non-trivial layouts as well. Important question: do you usually travel by car? I can't drive, so my main methods of transportation were public transport and walking.
I wonder: after sufficient adaptation to a rate-of-time sense, could useful mental effects be produced by adjusting the scale?
I think time sense is best developed via setting intention. If you set down to meditate, instead of using a timer you can set the goal of meditating for 20 minutes. That skill is trainable and with time you can get +1/-1. It would also be interesting to couple on of those sleep stage based alarm clocks with a query for a guess of the current time when you awake.
Interesting. I don't meditate, but I'll try this in other contexts (probably in tasks related to giving talks) and see how my time sense improves.
I can understand the compass part, it can be very useful and save your life onetime, but time-sense? For what the heck you might need this? In peoples world people wear watches or have timers on their smartphones, and in the world there's no people there's no time
In my case, the answer is simple: tutoring, teaching and lecturing. The feedback of watches and timers is completely inadequate: I can't "profile", I can't adjust my tempo in real time, et c. Not to say that I prefer to have this information subconsciously. The information from the compass anklet was far more useful (and efficient) than glancing at my smartphone's compass every second would have been.
Navigo will cost $21 see: https://www.quirky.com/products/636-Navigo-Compass-Bracelet/timeline
They announced today that they're not making it (yet), though.

Upgraded reflective senses would be really cool. For instance:

  • Levels of various interesting hormones like cortisol, epinephrine, testosterone, etc. For instance, cortisol levels are higher in the morning than in the evening, but this is not obvious. (Or am I lying to prevent hindsight bias?)
  • Various things measured by an implanted EEG. For instance, it would be cool to intuitively know the difference between beta and gamma waves.
  • Metabolism-related things like blood insulin, glucose, ketones.
  • Galvanic skin response. Heart rate variability.

We already have weak senses for most of these, but they're not always salient. Having a constant sense of them would allow you to do biofeedback-like training all the time.

This is my favorite one so far, unexpected and very practical. You quite plausibly might upgrade your meta-cognitive ability as these upgraded senses improve your ability to notice. Noticing your body reacting to getting anxious or being able to detect certain mental processes (mind wandering, confabulation, etc) is something you'd really want on all the time, at every second.
And the best thing is that the tech for that is practically there.
Could this be trained? In a safe environment, increasing and decreasing the levels quickly, and noticing what happens. So you would learn how exactly "high level of X" and "low level of X" feel for various values of X.
  • Ionizing Radiation - preferably expressed as synthetic heat or pain with a tolerable cap. The various types could be differentiated, by location or flavor, but mostly it's the warning that matters.

Being able to "feel" electric/magnetic fields with your hands would be great. Not dissimilar to wifi sensing, but enough to be able to intuit what a circuit is doing just by observing/feeling it.

I also don't think that anyone's mentioned having a true internal clock. Some people can already wake up at a specific time of day just by wanting to - that'd be useful. Also for the ability to time things.

Lastly, while being able to detect neurotransmitter levels in your own brain would be great, being able to detect them in the brains of others would be even better. Kind of a toned-down empathic ability - you could tell who was stressed, who was happy, and so on by the amount of cortisol or dopamine in their brain.

Similar to true north, a sense that always points to a specific person. I think this might non-obvious use for people with poor attachment who can lose, on a deep level, a sense of being connected with someone when they're not physically around, and can need a while to build it up again when that person comes back. Also for young kids, who sometimes experience the sensation of not knowing where their mom is as quite traumatic.

How would that work though. This isn't magic and I assume that there is some feature of north (something like magnetics) that explains how this works. I mean, it must be the case that there is some feature of facing north that we can learn to detect. However how can you detect the direction of a person, it's not like they are likely to emit some kind of planet wide signal.
GPS and cell connection.
I'm talking about in the case of the humans.

Could be fun to be able to see relations between people and tweak which ones show up as different false color lines between them on the fly.

Facebook friends Past/Current romantic relationship Went to school together Coworkers

Though I expect people to find this creepy despite the fact that most such data is publicly available.

Reliable internal senses: in effect, a diagnostic readout of chemical and biological processes, such as blood glucose, melatonin and other hormones, immune responses, calories consumed, hydration, organ function, and so on.

This doesn't have to be a sense as such (that is, directly available to consciousness). It could be a collection of timeseries sent to an external monitoring system.

How about: as a commitment mechanism, a small but nagging amount of discomfort related to your procrastination on a measurable task. I'm picturing this working something like the need to pee, with the difference that it resets at night: the discomfort could build throughout the day and instantly be resolved when you completed the task and reduced as you work toward the task.

For instance, if you committed to exercising a certain amount, accelerameters could estimate physical activity. for every step you took, your discomfort would decrease and for ever ho... (read more)

I already have this and it's horrible.
Somewhere in between your level of discomfort from not doing things and my level (which is 0)... I think it would be kind of nice to have it embodied in an actual physical sensation like needing to pee, instead of a nagging and building sense of guilt and self-directed frustration? You could externalize those feelings and maybe it would let you train those skills without developing the same emotional ugh fields.
How about a reward mechanism instead of a punishment one? Make productive work enjoyable. (But don't make it merely addictive!)
Pain collars on autopilot, no thanks X-0

Another example of this is vOICe. It converts images directly into audio, and people can quickly learn to see with it.

Also Neurofeedback, where you see your own brainwaves and then try to control them. The theory being that you can learn to make your brain focus or relax.


A 'taste' for pathogen bacteriae in food.

For the majority of pathogens this already exists. Certain ones like botulism are tasteless /odorless, but our built in chemorecepters are sensitive to the metabolites of most pathogens even at a high ppm (in other words, rotten/rancid food smells gross even when it is just starting to turn.)
Don't you mean at a low ppm, i.e. when there are few of the particles being detected?
Alas! My nose is a vengeful, deceitful liar.

Bottlenose can be built at home and gives a very primitive sense of echolocation.

Echolocation was the first thing that came to mind for me. Do you have more info about this? I couldn't find anything on google.

https://code.google.com/p/bottlenose/wiki/BottleNose \

I often wished for a little drone, equipped with a camera, some other recording software, and wings to do the legwork for me. Imagine sitting on the edge of a swamp, in your car, with a monitor built in your glasses showing you what the drone sees,and ssending it where you want it by moving your fingers. Of course, it can be done without implanting anything in one's head, but generally, people want to carry as little as possible... It would open new eras in waterfowl population research, too.

ETA: thank you all for your answers!

I think tying a drone's video feed into your virtual reality goggles (or a helmet) is a solved problem. If your moving fingers have a joystick under them, then "sending it where you want" is also a solved problem. I expect commercial kits to be available in 2016, soon after Oculus Rift hits the market. The real issue is drone's endurance (battery power). By the way, I'm pretty sure military people are doing this already.
About 70% of the way there with this lttile fella: http://www.wired.com/2015/05/lily-robotics-drone/
There a a few quadcopter projects (e.g. AirDog) which are extremely easy to control. Imagne moving them around with a special auto-recogized micro-gesture. The brain apparently can deal with out-of-body-experiences, so you could conceivably 'project' yourself into the drone.

perfect north

There are quite a few hacker projects and at least one serious research project for a compass sense e.g.

See also sensory augmentation

Emotion detector/encoder/transmitter/decoder/injector would be quite useful to the less neurotypical of us. The emotion injection part seems the hardest.

Interesting but dangerous if used on a larger scale. If you can control emotions consciously you effectively get rid of their function.
I could see this successfully using face-recognition software and tied into the auditory sense. I can't remember where I read it, but I read that people on the autism spectrum respond as strongly to the emotions evoked in music as neurotypical people. An emotion decoding computer (those exist and are pretty good now) can decide whether a person's mood should be represented by a happy C chord or a sad D minor or an angry discordant sound or an stressed buzz, and the musicality would be a good non-invasive emotional injector/empathizator.
  • High-speed direct information/language port (combined with a camera/text recognition software, or phone with wifi). Eyes are not optimized for reading at the maximum speed the brain can handle, and as http://www.spritzinc.com/ shows even fairly basic hacks can give huge gains. I bet we could push it much further. Especially good for the blind.
  • Glasses which convert various interesting non-visible wavelengths of light into a specific one (possibly camera+projecting onto google glass, possibly using the hearing thing?), gradually cycling through different w
... (read more)

For diabetics, a blood sugar monitor.

Apart from diabetics it would also be useful for the glucose-willpower debate.
As a diabetic, I would dearly love to have something like this. I read Google was working on a contact lens blood glucose monitor with Novartis.
If you could build the monitoring part of it - reliable, accurate, near-real-time and not too invasive - you would have an instantly revolutionary product, quite apart from piping the info to a new sensory channel.
This goes beyond the general usefulness and "cool factor" of many of the other suggestions into very useful, potentially life-saving, and helps fill a purpose which we currently do fairly inefficiently.

Interesting that all your proposals look outward. I primarily would want to monitor my own body. I want to detect cell growths of the type that could become cancerous and so on. Essentially improve on the sense of pain, give a "warning buzz" way before a problem grows big enough to affect the pain nerves.

That's useful information to have but I would be fine with a device that gives me that information and displays the information to me. There's little additional value from getting the information as a sense.
Also note that most pre-cancerous and even post-cancerous cells are dealt with easily by the immune system. Its a very small minority of cancer cells that escape, you would end up just driving yourself crazy by sensing/noticing each one. This is why they aren't recommending mammograms, pap smears, or prostate exams as much or for as wide an age range as they used to, for young and healthy immune systems, treatment has worse outcomes than just letting the body do its thing.

I had never heard of any of these except people putting magnets in their fingertips. Thanks for the post!

Minor typo I noticed:

"...and it is unique in that it is not implanted but instead." (instead what?)

How about just another vision channel, but mounted on a remote scout, such as a robot, drone, dog, or hawk?

Who should I talk to in a group? I have a bunch of existing "social senses" for navigating this, but they're not very reliable. If a clear You-Should-Talk-To-This-Person sense went off whenever I encountered someone appropriate, that would be nice.

I've always wanted this, but in a magical genie kind of way! OK cupid tries to do something like this by matching people pre-meeting. At an IRL interaction I can't imagine how a computer would figure this out before I did unless it had a very accurate idea of every personality in the group. So every person would have to have personality tests on file. Which I guess isn't implausible in the future! I also wonder if this would silo people even more among others similar to them. If anti-vaxers only talk to other anti-vaxers, and none of them have ever been friends or talked to a proponent of vaccination, they have no reason to ever change their mind. People who grew up poor only talk to other people who grew up poor, and the same for those who grew up rich, so fewer unexpected opportunities for social mobility/job offers/connections.
What would you imagine the criteria would be?
  • compress global twitter sentiments into 24 channels. Will you begin to have an intuitive sense of global events?
  • encode stockmarket data. Will you become an intuitive super-investor?
  • encode local weather data (a much more advanced version of "I can feel it's going to rain in my bad knee)

Only if you have a chance for immediate feedback. And I don't see that for any of these three as you can neither influence them directly nor filter to observe relevant parts. The latter might show a way to make this useful.

compress local (on the topics of the

... (read more)

Re GPS, being able to "see" the GPS satellite constellations with the time delays encoded as color shifts would allow the subject to quickly learn to geolocate themselves.

Given people's limited range, this seems like it would be hard to learn. The first time you travel to the Middle East it would seem very alien, but you wouldn't be able to locate yourself on a map.

a few of your suggestions can be summarised to "other electromagnetic senses" (being things of other wavelength than visible light), and generally things not in the "sound range" either.

Magnetic sense has been mentioned several times; I am going to look at getting a magnetic ring; never thought of it; and would be keen to try it. (and the non-invasiveness sounds good to me)

Someone mentioned already - internal vs external senses. I would like the ability to sense my own body temperature (possibly at my extremities vs my core, although I... (read more)

Theoretically, the 'Love Hormone Measurement System' has some utility. We form bonds to others with every kind word and familiar touch, it may be useful for many different populations of people to gain a clear sense of how they really feel about "loved ones", and why that is.

Also a general purpose sense of whether a person has spent too long or too little in the sunlight might be very harm reducing. A lack of light can cause myopia, too much is cancerous...

For myself...maybe a sense of polyrhythms?

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To feel upcoming seismic events.

I suspect this is complicated; if you ever look at a seismograph leading up to an earthquake - see google images for some. just feeling vibrations are not necessarily a great indication - you would need some kind of data processing system. Unless of course you just put your body through semi-real earthquake simulations that include the early warning signals and "teach" your intuitive sense to suspect earthquakes are on their way... TL;DR - we can probably already do this but it seems like too much effort for the return (perspective of someone who lives not in an earthquake zone)

I feel like there are interesting applications here for programmers, but I'm not exactly sure what. Maybe you could link up a particular programming language's syntax to our sense of grammar, so programs that wouldn't compile would seem as wrong to you as the sentence "I seen her". Experienced programmers probably already have something like this I suppose, but it could make learning a new programming language easier.

Syntax highlighting, and a compiler that highlights errors as you type them (e.g. SyntasticCheck for vim). It's really useful.

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see my comment on shminux's post ^^

The most well known and simple example is an implanted magnet, which would alert you to magnetic fields (the trade-off being that you could never have an MRI).

Can't we achieve the same objective by wearing a magnet ring or a magnet bracelet, without the serious downsides of having an implant?

I believe that having the magnet closer to your nerves gives you more sensation. the ability to sense if wires are live; the ability to feel the hum of a microwave or a laptop charger. I know of someone who had one which was getting infected so he removed it; he described it as "like being blind" to be without it. (I can contact him and see if he can comment here if you are interested)
I would be very interested in hearing about his experience, especially since I'd love to replicate something like this externally.
Him: Airports would be an issue, but it's easy to prove the magnets are there and be on your way. I had a single N52 grade 3mmx1mm disk magnet in the 3rd finger of my left hand. As far as MRI's i was going to have a medical bracelet made, directing the doctor to a note that says "magnetic implants in fingers, please remove if MRI is necessary" or if I was going in myself, I'd just tell them. Then I'd keep the magnets and have them re-implanted later. And I saw the guy with the ring. The sensation is nothing compared to an implant into the somatosensory nerve cluster. me: Can you say more about what it felt like to have it? him: That would be like describing blue to a blind person. me: You still haven't replaced it right? So what does it feel like to not have it now? him: I've pretty much gone back to normal. It's been over a year. I still need to find a viable coating. What else would you like to ask him about?
Thanks! If still possible, I'd like to ask the following: * Who performed the insertion procedure? How long does it take to heal? * An N52 is very strong. Did you experience any unexpected negative side-effects while handling everyday objects (weight training, smartphones, et c.)? * Apart from the ring, have you tried achieving the same thing externally (i.e. without an implant)? Do you think it would be possible to "come close"?
him: "A body artist. It took about 3 weeks to close. Not sure on internal healing. A month, maybe. Not really any issues. It stings a bit if you hold something too long. Pinches the skin between the object and the magnet. You could try supergluing one to the side of the fingertip."
Him: Implantation is still the best way. If i could get resourses, anesthesia, coated magnet, surgeon (so to speak), and enough downtime, i'd do it for study. Me: why surgeon? going deep enough? Him: Cleaner incision.
In related news - I ordered some magnetic rings. They arrived today. So far; no superpowers, however they are entertaining me. its quite comfortable to play with them, I suspect they would be good for someone with an ADD/ADHD/Tourettes type need to fidget as a focussed outlet for the energy. I suspect that having them outside my skin will mean they are nowhere near as sensitive as internal magnets. So far I can pick up metal objects in funny ways, and don't have any electric sense. Will post again soon with updates. Also so far my technology has no problems with them. My phone has a sweet spot to know if the lid is closed, but I have yet to have big problems with that.
Are there any rings or bracelet for that on the market?
I've been wearing a magnetic ring for about 2 years (I think; can't remember when I started), since I read the idea here on LW. It's not really like an extra sense, but it's fun to always have a magnet at hand. Some things that look like they should be attracted aren't, and the other way around. So far the only magnetic field I've felt was at one of those anti-theft gates in a shop, that was cool. It can be practical too, if you're working with little screws or bolts you can keep them on the ring. OTOH you have to be careful with hotel key cards. My ring is from here; I had another one before from somewhere else, but it fell on a stone floor and broke.
That seems a lot less of what current magnetic sensation implants can do. I interviewed one person who has one and he said he could feel when the fan of his computer was starting up and where wires in the wall are placed.
Does he have any problems at airports?
It's not something that he reported but I haven't asked directly. I don't think there would be problems with having a small amount of metal in your fingers. While medical implants are usually made with titanium that's not magnetic and doesn't register strongly airport equipment, it's not something that should be an issue. The main problem is the inability to have an MRI if you should need it in the future.
Magnetic implants are subcutaneous, if you really need an MRI, it's easy to take them out (and put them back in later).

Nice. Almost a follow-up to my question (When does technological enhancement feel natural and acceptable?)[http://lesswrong.com/r/discussion/lw/m4h/when_does_technological_enhancement_feel_natural/]. These are all things that are natural by construction.

See also this sensory vest which is specifically intended to add senses (and it does work for letting deaf hear).


Tunable retinal cones.

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