The human body has emerged as more than just a canvas for wearable electronic devices. Technological size and cost reductions, along with power and battery improvements, has meant items that were once external have become wearable, and even insertable.
In Part 1, I wrote about the background and history of insertables. We know people are inserting devices into their bodies, but what and why?
Who uses insertables?
We spoke to 17 participants, mostly male with only three female. Participant ages ranged from 18 to mid-40s. Participants were from Australia, New Zealand and the United States, and while their digital literacy and technical abilities varied, many worked in highly technical areas.
What are they inserting?
Our 17 participants had a total of 47 devices currently within their bodies, not including those that had been removed or replaced for upgrades.
- NFC and RFID microchips — for authentication and authorization, access, storing and sharing information and temperature readings
- Magnets — for interacting with electronic and digital objects
- Bespoke devices for experimentation
RFID & NFC Microchips
RFID & NFC microchips are approximately the size of a grain of rice. They are inserted using large gauge syringes, like those used to body piercings or pet microchipping. Once inserted, and healed, they are invisible to the naked eye.
Magnets are milimeters small. They are generally inserted using a scalpel and are also invisible once healed.
Where are devices inserted?
The insertion position selected is generally based on use, with form following function.
The standard position for microchips is in the webbing of the hand, between the thumb and the index finger. The webbing is away from vital tissues and organs, provides protection for the chip and affords an easy and natural interaction with sensors and phones.
Only two participants deviated from this standard position, those using the bio-therm chips, which they placed in their forearms for convenience of reading data by strapping on a reader.
Magnets were commonly positioned at nerve endings particularly the fingertips to pick up electromagnetic waves and create new sensations. Magnets in other locations were to afford specific interactions: a magnet in the wrist so that a wearable could be positioned over it to digitally interact, magnets in the tragi for audio sensations, and the lovers’ magnet configuration, used to join on the back when a couple holds hands.
Instead of placing a device on the body when needed, and taking it off again when no longer required, we are seeing people augment the body in a semi-permanent way with an insertable device. This augmentation is typically not visible to others — comparable to those who choose to insert contact lenses rather than wear glasses.
What does the use of these devices mean for the future of HCI & UX?
Biometrics from within the body — Next level QS
Insertables offer interesting new possibilities for the quantified self movement — they stay out of the way during recreational activities, are waterproof by nature and do not become uncomfortable with movement, chaffing or sweat.
2 participants were using insertables for body temperature readings, with one trying to set up his air-conditioning to automatically adjust based on this reading rather than ambient temperature controls.
New Input Devices
Our participants have repurposed old technologies, NFC and RFID, for new input, applications from within their bodies. The lack of a suitable ecosystem for insertable devices remains an ongoing challenge. NFC and RFID are not currently widespread input options, often requiring additional peripherals or making of specialized devices to receive input.
Our participants have gone through considerable effort to modify systems to accept their insertables as valid input. If these formats became popular input technologies, users will be able to access systems more readily.
This includes home, phone, work and car access. Replacing luggable keys and wearable dongles with insertables.
It may seem trivial but never been able to forget your keys certainly has benefits. You never get locked out and have to call a locksmith or try climb through the cat flap. You never have to leave work because you’re child has locked themselves out of the house.
As one participant puts it:
I was super-duper thankful that I went through this small tiny piece of pain for the guarantee that my key would be with me as long as I have my hand, which I’ve never ever forgotten. It only takes one or two times of making a bullshit trip that’s already too long and having to drive the whole way back home, or deal with it for the day, to make you realize like oh a small pinch and this is solved? Yeah, please give me the pinch.
Many of our participants claimed that insertables provide increased usability over existing solutions.
Use of insertables as input to existing interfaces removes the need for individuals to stop and interact with devices, making them natural user interfaces (NUIs) with intuitive and seamless interactions.
Participants were using insertables as input triggers to automatically and seamlessly launch applications without interacting with devices, other than to hold their hand to a reader. Just like wearables, interactions with insertables are efficient, as users do not need to carry devices, nor stop what they are doing to interact with one.
For example, one participant set up the coordinates of his lab:
It made everything easier, I didn’t have to type things in or interact with the interfaces, I just had to run my hand over my phone and I was on my way.
Our participants expressed frustration with managing wearables; they no longer wanted to be bothered by carrying or wearing objects they could forget and had to manage, recharge, and put on and take off. Some found wearables uncomfortable and didn’t even wear their wedding rings. Participants had eliminated keys, dongles and external devices by relegating these input and storage functions to insertable devices.
Our participants opted in to insertables. For them, the benefits out weighed any pain or discomfort. They didn’t want to manage keys, wallets or purses and phones, manage glasses, put wearables on and off and make sure they’re charged.
You try and minimize the number of things you need to manage in the day because you don’t want to spend your time worrying about them.
It is true, however, that not all users will be satisfied with inserting devices into their bodies. Gluing RFID tags onto nails is far less controversial and threatening for the wider populous. Wearable and insertable devices can coexist alongside one another with users being able to choose whichever they are comfortable with, and what meets their needs.
As devices are miniaturized they are integrated into our everyday experience, they become a part of us. In this era of ubiquitous computing there is a blurring of the line between ourselves and the technologies that we use. When this technology is physically inside us, this line is blurrier than ever before.
Participants spoke of the impermanent permanence of insertables. They can be removed, yet cannot be forgotten. They are the only truly always available device. Participants wanted devices that became a part of them — some were not satisfied with a purely biological body and saw this as the next stage of human evolution.
Clearly insertable devices are ubiquitous — small and unobstructed and comfortable to an extent that participants forgot their existence. To the point that participants associated the capabilities of the insertable devices as capabilities of themselves. Many spoke of their abilities as “I can” rather than attributing the device. Participants took their capabilities for granted as they became their new norm.
Some of our participants have also begun to experiment with insertables to receive data in a hands-free manner without having to stop what they are doing.
Two of our participants are experimenting with use of insertables for more than a notification that another device needs their attention. They transmit the data itself to magnets, rather than simply a haptic notification.
One application was a depth sensor transmitting data from a wearable over the magnet of proximity. They were able to walk around a room successfully with their eyes closed — a proof of concept to replace senses in the blind.
Leveraging insertable devices in this manner can be used to achieve truly hands-free, eyes-free information receipt for individuals with and without impairments. Receiving and interpreting data from insertables has the potential to give invisible improvements in sensorial parity.
Others were using insertables for sensorial extension, taking them beyond what humans can naturally do. Many participants were using magnets to add a new sense of being able to ‘feel’ electromagnetic waves.
2 participants used their tragi magnets, along with a wearable coil, to create and transmit sound waves that the magnets would pick up. This effectively makes ‘invisible headphones’ to sound like it’s coming from inside your head, rather then through your ears, while still keeping your ears open to your surrounds. The aim was not just for music; the pioneer of this configuration is going blind and is experimenting with replacing that sense with echolocation.
Using insertables for sensory improvement offers new modalities and opportunities for human evolution.
The body’s roughly two square metres of skin is a canvas for devices. The insides of the body are no longer limited to just implantable medical devices as some individuals are already experimenting to use the internal 66L as a platform for insertable devices. As acceptance grows, insertables may become a device mode of choice for future NUIs.
Our full CHI paper and research is available here
Kayla J. Heffernan, Frank Vetere, and Shanton Chang. 2016. You Put What, Where?: Hobbyist Use of Insertable Devices. In Proceedings of the 2016 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI ‘16). ACM, New York, NY, USA, 1798–1809. DOI=http://dx.doi.org/10.1145/2858036.2858392