Further Details of the Aims of the Conference
The conference is on the topic of sensory substitution and augmentation. In sensory substitution, one sense is used to try to replace another; in sensory augmentation, one sense is used to try to create a new sense or enhance an existing one. The most famous instance of sensory substitution is tactile-vision sensory substitution, pioneered by the late Paul Bach-y-Rita. This involves stimulating the skin in a pattern determined by input from a camera focused on the area in front of the subject. After some practice with the equipment subjects became able to identify three-dimensional objects at a distance from their body. They described the experiences that they were having as being as of objects in front of their body in space, rather than as stimulation on their skin – and described having experiences most resembling ordinary visual experiences. Since that time, several other sensory substitution and augmentation devices have been built, including the “vOICe” system that aims to substitute sight with hearing, the “feelSpace” belt that tries to give users a magnetic sense using touch, and replacement of touch in prosthetic limbs by using touch on other parts of the body.
The empirical research has now reached the point where different forms and versions of substitution devices have been produced, users have been trained to use them, and interesting behavioural and brain imaging studies are beginning to be conducted that shed light on what is going on in subjects using the substitution and augmentation technologies. In addition, the topics of cross-modal interactions and the nature of the senses have become an area of intense research in both psychology and philosophy. The time is ripe to put together experts in these fields with the hope that new and substantial leaps forward in knowledge can be made.
Empirical researchers are trying to develop the best and most useful substitution systems, and to investigate the principles behind their development. They are also studying the changes in the brain that take place during use. This research raises a large number of interesting questions for philosophers, psychologists and designers interested in the nature of perception:
- What are the limits of sensory substitution?
For example, all the existing sensory substitution devices seem to replace the spatial representation of one sense by utilizing spatial representation in another. Is this all that can be done? Or could one substitute smell, taste or colour perception using another modality?
- What are the conditions required for subjects to come to have novel experiences when wearing substitution or augmentation devices and can we measure when they come to have new experiences?
- To what extent is one sense really replaced by another?
Do subjects come to have perceptual experiences in the substituted modality, as has mostly been assumed to date or, rather, must we develop new models of what is taking place? Recent research has suggested that subjects are merely cognitively working out what is in front of them, or that they are learning to read information delivered to the existing sense into experience in an automatic way delivering new experiences that are similar to our experiences of hearing speech sounds or reading signs as linguistically significant.
- Why are some (but by no means all) subjects not keen on using these sensory replacement devices? Why do they feel this way and can anything be done to overcome their reluctance?
- Can we maintain a conception of separate senses at all in the face of these new technologies and the experiences that they produce?
- What light does the research cast on the nature of mind and perception?
For example, what is the nature of the phenomenal character of the new experiences produced? What can we come to know of these experiences without having them ourselves? What does such knowledge of their phenomenal character tell us about the structure of experience more generally, the nature of the properties represented in experience, and the relation of experience to the brain? And most generally, what theories of perception does the existence of sensory substitution support or undermine? (For example it has been claimed by some people in the literature that the existence of sensory substitution undermines functionalism and representationalism – popular theories of perception and consciousness – and by others that it does not undermine functionalism and that it actually supports representationalism.)
One aim of the conference is to enable the designers of this equipment to share good practice. Another aim is to inform the design of future devices by the more theoretic considerations about the nature of perception that the conference participants will consider. This research will involve knowledge exchange among academics and those designing devices to help those who are sensorily impaired who require prosthesis. The designers already work with the sensorily impaired users, and will share their knowledge of people’s reaction and interaction with such devices to date. The more theoretical research will feed back down into the new design of devices and equipment and we will suggest new experiments and tests to further our knowledge of users’ interaction with the equipment. A third, and most important, aim is to make progress in considering the nature of the perception and the nature of the senses.