Animal Superpowers

Animals have senses beyond human experience, they instinctively feel approaching tsunamis through low frequencies, communicate through pheromones or can navigate through magnetic fields.


Students of Design Interactions Chris Woebken and Kenichi Okada, in collaboration with MBA students from the Oxford Said Business-school, have been developing a series of sensory enhancements toys for children to experience “animal superpowers.” Each prototype allows the kid to change perspective or feel empathy with animals.


At the work in progress show of the Royal College of Art in London a few weeks ago there were showing 3 of their prototypes:

0aaantvision9.jpgThe ground as seen through the “Ant” apparatus

Ant – feeling like an ant magnifying your vision 50x through microscope antennas on your hands
Bird – gaining a sense for magnetic fields
Giraffe – a child to adult converter changing your voice & perspective

They are also developing Elephant shoes that pick up transmitting vibrations from fellows and a head mounted Theremin (!) to provide children with an enhanced spatial vision similar to the one of an electric Eel.

I played with the ant and giraffe devices while visiting the RCA show and found out that the objects do exactly what their description says: i felt humbled by the ant devices (i could not see anything of what was around me but could perceive all the tiny cracks and details on the surface of of the table i was exploring) and while doning the giraffe helmet i could only perceive the head of the tallest people in the room. Anyway, time for a few questions to Kenichi and Chris:

0aalesprototypes.jpgHow does the Bird device work?

K&C: Birds find direction through sensing geomagnetic fields to find their way migrating from their summer territory to where they are spending the winter months.

Rather than translating the sense of geomagnetic fields literally, we designed a device that can be set to basic children’s needs sensing the direction of home, icecream-shops or your friends.

Tiny motors in the device create a haptic sensation on the skin when you tune into the direction and create a new relationship to your environment. It not just creates a haptic sensation for yourself but as part of the superheros it also displays the direction and visualizes it to your friends.

0aadagirfff.jpgWhich technique did you use to change the voice in the giraffe helmet?

K&C: We are using a telephone voice changer to make a kids voice sound like an adult.

Has working on this project taught you something you were not expecting about body perception and possible future body extensions?

K&C: All the devices in this series are working experiential prototypes so we could test the devices with kids. We were quite surprised how extreme the ant device changes the children’s behaviors. Even a hyperactive kid moves very slow because the new 50x scale makes you feel sick if you would move at normal speed.

We are interested in perception and sensory enhancements for the body and we are also considering a series of toys that uses bio-sensors and can tune into biochemical animal communication.

C: The animal project inspired me to explore new ways of interacting with our instinctual animal-self, taking it from the toy level to an adult training tool. Our senses evolved to operate in a networked information age and the sense of smell for example is currently degenerated because we have fire-alarms. Evolutionary our emotions are still controlled with the reptile part of our brain. I am exploring how networked technology and human augmentation training tools can create a new awareness, augment instincts and train new reflexes and for today’s survival.

Thanks Chris and Kenichi!


Images by Chris Woebken.

0aarabitearss.jpgJim Rokos just told me about a low-tech device that, although it does not enhance our sensory range like the Animal Superpowers project, alters a user’s perception of the space (in this case Kensington Gardens in London) by giving the sensation of being a rabbit.

Designed by Rokos in collaboration with in collaboration with Kathrin Bohm and Andreas Lang, the object lowered your vision to ground level, and outwards, by the use of periscopes. The device was set off centre on a wheel to create the sensation of hopping.

The device comes with ears and a tail, so that onlookers can also understand the product’s purpose.