Electronics

Cyborg step: A body hack that lets you sense magnetic north

The North Sense not only alerts wearers to magnetic north but could also augment their perception of reality
The North Sense not only alerts wearers to magnetic north but could also augment their perception of reality
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The North Sense not only alerts wearers to magnetic north but could also augment their perception of reality
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The North Sense not only alerts wearers to magnetic north but could also augment their perception of reality
Close-up of the technology that is used in the sensor. Babitz says the company has a "huge responsibility" at this stage to create trustworthy products
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Close-up of the technology that is used in the sensor. Babitz says the company has a "huge responsibility" at this stage to create trustworthy products
Cyborg Nest CEO and co-founder Liviu Babitz with the North Sense
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Cyborg Nest CEO and co-founder Liviu Babitz with the North Sense
Co-founders Babitz and Scott Cohen video-conferencing with Neil Harbisson and Moon Ribas
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Co-founders Babitz and Scott Cohen video-conferencing with Neil Harbisson and Moon Ribas
The North Sense is the size of a matchbox
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The North Sense is the size of a matchbox
Babitz showing a child what the sensor can do
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Babitz showing a child what the sensor can do

If animals such as birds, fish, lobsters and dogs can detect magnetic fields, why can't people do the same as well? The question of whether we have a subconscious magnetic sixth sense has long divided the scientific community and if it does exist, a new body attachment called the North Sense might just help reacquaint us with this long-dormant ability.

The waterproof gadget is about the size of a matchbox, is charged via USB, and vibrates when the wearer is facing north. It is designed to be attached to the skin, preferably just below the collarbone on the upper part of the chest, and held in place via two bar piercings, which can be done by a body piercer. The idea is to treat the North Sense just as you would the rest of your sensory organs, and not just as a tool. After all, you don't remove your tongue just because you don't feel like eating.

This philosophy is primarily what separates the North Sense from other external sensors that help wearers detect magnetic north. Cyborg Nest, the company behind the gadget, is more interested in exploring the abstract – that is, how modifying the way we perceive things can change the way we experience reality - than in loading it with practical functions. That is why it doesn't have GPS or any tracking abilities, nor is it connected to a network.

Cyborg Nest CEO and co-founder Liviu Babitz with the North Sense
Cyborg Nest CEO and co-founder Liviu Babitz with the North Sense

"There's a whole other world out there full of things we have no idea about – different types of radiation, sounds, and colors," explains CEO and co-founder Liviu Babitz, who has been testing the sensor for the past three weeks. "Even if it's in a primitive way, being able to sense and connect to something that I would otherwise have zero clue about is something that fascinates me on a daily basis."

The next stage is going to be even more interesting, as the company plans to find out not only how the sensor affects the wearer's sense of direction but also his perception of the world around him. For example, a painter and engineer perceive their environment differently, Babitz explains. What kind of an effect will an artificial sense have on who they are and what they do? Whatever it is, the wearer will have to be patient, though. According to Steve Haworth, another co-founder and a body modification artist, it takes roughly six months for the brain to create new neural networks to understand what an individual is experiencing.

While scientists are divided over whether a magnetic sense exist in humans, Babitz claims that the company is already in touch with a few researchers who are interested in seeing what kind of research can be done around the device.

"There are already a lot of theories that are running about things that might happen, such as changes in the brain, perception of reality, and the impact this might have on other parts of the body," he tells New Atlas. "You can't base scientific theory on just one person's experience."

With that said, this is just the beginning for Cyborg Nest. After all, this is a company made up of some very prominent individuals, including Neil Harbisson, the color-blind cyborg artist who can famously hear colors thanks to the antenna implanted in his skull; his partner and fellow cyborg artist Moon Ribas, who has a magnetic implant in her arm that lets her sense the world's earthquakes; music exec Scott Cohen, co-founder of the world's largest digital distributor The Orchard; and Haworth, popularly known as the Modfather in body-mod circles. As for Babitz, he used to be the COO of charity organization Videre est Credere, which helps citizens in oppressed countries document human rights abuses with hidden cameras.

Co-founders Babitz and Scott Cohen video-conferencing with Neil Harbisson and Moon Ribas
Co-founders Babitz and Scott Cohen video-conferencing with Neil Harbisson and Moon Ribas

While Videre and Cyborg Nest might seem like they're worlds apart, there is a clear linear connection between the two organizations, he says.

"If you look at Videre and Cyborg Nest, they both deal with people, they both want to create a better world, they both come from a positive place, and they both also deal with technology," he observes. "At Videre we used to invent and build devices for people to use. I think we're living in what I call the Leonardo Da Vinci era, where every person needs to be able to do a lot of stuff and create his path in life, not just with the skills he has but also other [resources]."

Will there be an artificial sense that can be used in areas such as human rights and education eventually? Babitz remains tight-lipped about the company's future plans, except to say that it's still early days for some of the things they would like to do. At present, they are focused on building Cyborg Nest's brand and he is careful to stress that the North Sense is far from a DIY open-source product that one might hack onto one's body with a tool kit and/or a flagrant disregard for pain, as is the case with other body hacks.

Close-up of the technology that is used in the sensor. Babitz says the company has a "huge responsibility" at this stage to create trustworthy products
Close-up of the technology that is used in the sensor. Babitz says the company has a "huge responsibility" at this stage to create trustworthy products

While artificial senses might raise eyebrows now, he believes there will be a market for different kinds of body implants in the near future. More importantly for entrepreneurial types, Cyborg Nest is proof that such a venture can be financially sustainable. Despite being a new company in an obscure field, it is making money and has paying clients.

"It still surprises me that people are pre-ordering artificial senses. They're not pre-ordering a new hat, so this is a very cool place to be as humans – and I'm lucky to be a part of it," says Babitz.

Babitz showing a child what the sensor can do
Babitz showing a child what the sensor can do

The North Sense retails for $419 and is expected to ship in late January or early February.

Source: Cyborg Nest

6 comments
hibni
Actually it is not true that we have lost the ability of instinctively detecting cardinal directions. Some aboriginal people still retain such ability thanks to theirs language, which has no words to denote directions relative to a person (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Relative_direction#Cultures_without_relative_directions). Since they always need to refer to cardinal directions, they develop the ability to instincively "know" the direction of cardinal points, even after being blinded and turned around many times and, partially, when drunk.
Gabor
Seriously? A body piercing costing $420 to sense north? Some alternatives, free of charge: Watch + sun, compass, gps, moss on tree, etc., etc... All free, none require piercings. Oh, Oh, ... Topo map?? This is a seriously dubious idea, IMHO
Bob Flint
Pretty much ever cell phone has the capability already, why would anyone spend that kind of money on something readily available with a simple scout compass... Just open your eyes, look at the sun, feel the prevailing wind, all natures clues to which direction one is facing...
noteugene
Are you people insane? Piercing your body just so you'd know true north? WTF cares!???? Put a $2 compass in your pocket idiot.
wle
..because no one carries a phone, can look at the sun, or carry a dollar-store compass... geez i'm sure i am missing some huge point or other --still.,...
Joe Blough
Makes no sense to me at all. Magnetic north constantly changes, has huge geographic variation, and may even switch directions as the earth's core has done before. Who would pay for such useless information? The real interesting story will be who buys these and why.