The human body has the potential for amazing feats, but it also has built-in limitations — we can’t hear certain tones, we see a limited range of colours, and we can’t feel magnetic and electrical fields around us the way some animals do.
Some people choose not to accept those limits.
Neil Harbisson was born without the ability to see colour. Now, he can perceive more than 360 colours and even discern the infrared spectrum. Kevin Warwick, the U.K.-based cybernetics professor and author of “I, Cyborg,” was the first person to implant a RFID chip into his arm, which then connected to systems at the University of Reading and could open doors and turn lights on or off. He even connected his nervous system to that of his wife, so they each could feel what the other person was feeling. Amal Graafstra, the founder of Dangerous Things, sells a kit for $US99 that you can buy right now and use to put a RFID chip in your own hand.
These characters are at the forefront of the biohacker, grinder, or cyborg movement, but they are not the only ones who have started to experiment with technological body modifications that do far more than a traditional piercing or tattoo.
Some think regular people are closer to accepting biohacking than many realise. Most of us are willing to trust computers to take over brain functions already. Search engines replace our memory for basic facts; Google maps replaces our sense of direction.
Bio- and body-hackers take things a step or two further. Using tattoo needles, scalpels, injection devices, microchips, or just wires, they embrace connectivity and step further into the cybernetic world.
To them, the limit is no longer the body. The limit is the mind, the uses we can come up with for this technology. Biohackers look at what technology is capable of and ask a question:
What do you want to be able to do?
Here are six body hacks that let people sense the world around them in new ways.
1. Magnetic implants can help you sense electric fields and pick up small metal objects. Magnets are commonly implanted into the hand or on a finger, allowing users to sense the location of a nearby electrical field, subway, or microwave.
Tim Cannon, one of the founders of biohacking collective Grindhouse Wetwares — whose slogan is “What would you like to be today?” — told Slate that he could tell not only where a current is come from, but could also distinguish between alternating current and direct current. A friend even calls him the “laptop whisperer,” because he was able to use his abilities to diagnose a battery problem.
2. Magnets can also transmit sound and more. Biohacker Rich Lee implanted magnets in his ears that work as hidden ear buds by picking up a musical signal from a magnetic cord connected to a music player. He told Extreme Tech that he planned on linking these implants to his phone’s GPS system so that directions could be transmitted directly to his head. Linked up to a microphone, he could use them as a listening device or phone as well.
3. Temporary digital tattoos can relay vital information about health. Biohackers are wary about saying that their devices relay health information — most don’t want their work to be regulated as medical technology by the Food and Drug Administration, one reason that individuals can’t use anesthesia when putting an implant in themselves. But biohacking research has led to the creation of temporary tattoos that can assess vital statistics. Some monitor sweat to gauge physical activity. Others can monitor the body’s electrical activity, heart rate, and more — and can transmit that data to computers and mobile devices.
Big companies, who are less intimidated by regulation, also seem aware of the potential of these tattoos. A Google-owned company is working on digital tattoos that could connect to smartphones and gaming devices and that could even serve as lie detectors, according to the patent it filed.
4. RFID Chips let the human body interact with electronic devices in a variety of ways. For some people, this is a means of unlocking doors, computers, and other devices. One researcher used an implanted chip to spread a computer virus.
An implant like this can connect to payment and security systems, as well as communication tools and so much more. This is one of those modifications where the question is, if you have a device that can interact with almost any machine, what do you want it to do?
5. The Eyeborg allows Neil Harbisson to hear the colours of the world. A small antenna mounted over Harbisson’s head views the colours of the world, including the ultraviolet and infrared spectrum, and vibrates a unique tone that only he can hear, allowing him to perceive the world in colour — something he was born without the ability to do. It would take time for someone else to learn to use Harbisson’s synesthesia-like approach to viewing the world, but you can download the software to start building your own Eyeborg at home.
Harbisson says becoming a self-identified cyborg led him to found the Cyborg Foundation, which works to help people extend their senses through technology and defends their right to do so. “I think we are now entering the age of transition into cyborgs,” he told Business Insider. “I’m sure it will be normal to meet someone and ask ‘what are your extra senses?'”
6. Biohacking implants can give you a Spider-Man-like ability to sense movement all around you. Different devices do this in different ways. Rich Lee says that connecting his ear implants to a range finder can create a sort of echolocation ability, which will hum as an object gets closer to him. A Cyborg Foundation Project called the 360º Sensory Extension vibrates if someone approaches from behind, and can even do so from different sides of the body. Grindhouse Wetwares has a project called Bottlenose that captures sonar, ultraviolet, Wi-Fi, and thermal data and transmits information about these invisible fields to implanted magnets.
So what do you want to be able to do?
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