For Tim Cannon, a mild-mannered 33-year-old software developer from Pittsburgh, it was the magnet idea that touched a nerve. “I’ve been a science fiction fan since I was a kid,” he told me. “I’ve just always been interested in nerdy kind of stuff.” When Cannon first saw Anonym, his first thought was, ‘Oh no, the revolution started without me!’ ” Within a month, he had enlisted a professional tattoo artist to install a polymer-coated magnet in his left ring finger. The process was a lot cleaner than Anonym’s DIY approach, though Cannon says it would have been far more pleasant with a little anesthetic.
So what’s it like having a sense of magnetism? At first it was a little jarring, Cannon says, to feel his finger buzz like a cellphone on vibrate when it came within a foot of a refrigerator. But over time he has developed an intuitive sense of what’s giving off current, and of what sort (vibrations mean alternating current, a tug means direct). And his little superpower, humble as it is, has come in handy around the house on a few occasions, like when the battery light started flickering on his friend’s laptop. “I went over and hovered my hand over the power brick, hovered my hand over the laptop, repeated that a couple of times, and when I got back to the laptop I felt it kind of sputtering—pop, pop—and I noticed that coincided with the battery light coming on. I said, ‘Hey man, your power bridge is bad.’ ” He says his friend now calls him “the laptop whisperer.”
Cannon and a few like-minded friends formed a collective called Grindhouse Wetwares, with the tagline, “What would you like to be today?” They’ve built such things as a range-finding sensor that makes their fingers pulse based on how far away the nearest walls are. “You can just sweep it over a room and get an idea for the contours of the room with your eyes closed,” Cannon says. “It’s kind of like a sonar sense.” The group has also experimented with implantable biomedical tracking devices and a gizmo called the “thinking cap,” which zaps the brain with electricity in an effort to heighten the user’s focus. (This risky-sounding procedure, known as transcranial direct current stimulation, has actually been shown to boost cognitive performance in several studies, though it may also have its downsides.)
In Barcelona, a nonprofit called the Cyborg Foundation is pushing a more artistic (and less cringe-inducing) vision of sensory extension. It was founded by Neil Harbisson, an artist and musician who was born with achromatopsia, the inability to see colors. Since 2004, Harbisson has worn a device he calls the eyeborg, a head-mounted camera that translates colors into soundwaves and pipes them into his head via bone conduction. Today Harbisson “hears” colors, including some beyond the visible spectrum. “My favorite color is infrared,” he told me, because the sound it produces is less high-pitched. (This prize-winning short film featuring Harbisson is well worth watching.)
The Cyborg Foundation’s co-founder, Moon Ribas, is working on a sensor that can be attached to the back of her head that will vibrate to alert her when someone is approaching from behind. Mariana Viada, the Cyborg Foundation’s communications manager and an outdoorswoman, is looking into an internal compass that could tell her at all times which way is true north. “People ask me why I would want to extend my senses, and I simply answer, ‘Why not?’ ” Viada says. “There is so much out there to discover.”
As low-tech as these types of devices are, Cannon thinks they’re laying the groundwork for more powerful (and pervasive) human enhancements in the future. And he thinks there will be money in it—but he says Grindhouse Wetwares has no interest in becoming a startup beholden to venture capitalists. “We think that in order to preserve ownership of our bodies, we need to make sure this is open-source. If you think Apple has a problem with you jailbreaking your iPhone, wait until they’re responsible for your heart.”