Everyone’s reality is slightly different. We all experience the world around us in different ways. Our world is sensed as numbers and electrical impulses that our brains then turn into something meaningful. At Extrasensory, everyone was challenged to make sense of the world of the senses and find the limits to their own.
There were many incredible sights, tastes and sensations to behold. Skunk Control (Victoria University) displayed their “Fractured Altar” light installation. A display of transparent and white flowers made from treated plastics may have seemed simple, but through a polarised filter, the white light was transformed into a burst of colour.
People also looked up at the stars with Dr Simon Cropper (University of Melbourne’s School of Psychology) to find patterns and stories in the sky. What you find can tell you something about your mind. There were also virtual reality (VR) experiences hosted by Swinburne University, CSIRO Data61 and the ARC Centre of Excellence in Convergent Bio-Nano Science and Technology. Participants took the virtual balance challenge, travelled through the digestive system, and explored the inside of a cell.
For those who sense of sight isn’t as strong, there were tactile displays and activities. In what looked like an arts and crafts explosion, the Rossjohn Infection and Immunity Lab at Monash Biomedicine Discovery Institute produced a vibrant display of molecules, cells and pathogens made from food and craft materials. Their idea was to immerse the low vision and blind community in the immune system by allowing them to touch large models with the fine details. SensiLab (Monash University) challenged people to navigate their way with tactile maps, and people soon realised that images that work well for a visual map (e.g. a knife and fork representing dining areas) don’t necessarily work as well by the sense of touch.
There were also delectable tasting sensations on offer. Emma Donnelly (Culinary Science) and Jon Seltin (Brick Lane Brewery) held workshops on the science of champagne and beer – on how sparkling wine gets its bubbles, the best glassware to drink out of, and the aromatic compounds that are added to beer. Participants were also tricked by food scientist, Tara Storey, into believing that some chocolate was sweeter than others based on the music they listening to while tasting. They also struggled to tell the difference between coffee and tea with eyes shut and nostrils clamped. Deakin University’s Centre for Advanced Sensory Science also challenged participants to taste the fat in food and opened their eyes to the art of sensory marketing.
Would you wash your hands with soap made from sewerage waste? Science Gallery Melbourne set up a hand-washing station with soaps made from cooking oil waste, sewerage waste and palm oil.
The sounds of delightful music could be heard in Queen’s Hall. Inspired by science, Elissa Goodrich, Adam Simmons and Gideon Brazil performed Gene Tree Project – music of the evolution of species. Vicki Hallett improvised riffs with her clarinets over the top of nature recordings in Elephant Trail. The last moments of the Mars Rover were captured in beautiful, haunting melodies on the piano by Sam Colcheedas.
Imagine being able to listen to a recording of that music and hear it as though it were live. Dr David Sly is designing the next generation of hearables, which includes headphones that provide 3D audio (the sound moves in relation to your head), amplification of sound as subtle, stigma-free hearing aids, and sensors that detect brain activity. Sound and visual cues were mixed by Arup to produce a sound lab experience that messed with the mind. By playing monosyllabic sounds and watching people’s lips, your brain can be tricked into hearing what it’s lip-reading. People also walked through sound in Sonic Efforts; walking is something we don’t think about, but Frank Feltham (RMIT) devised a system increases awareness of your pressure and balance when moving by listening to sound.
In the Legislative Council and Assembly Chambers, speakers presented on a plethora of engaging topics. Susie Sheldrick from Silverpond spoke of the use of artificial intelligence (AI) to enhance our senses: Computer vision has allowed us to interpret images rapidly (e.g. cameras that can diagnose medical conditions), provide a sense of touch to prosthetics, and E-noses that recognise chemicals.
NASA geobiologist, Dr Darlene Lim is working in simulated space missions on Earth to determine how astronauts will best conduct science and interact with an environment they’ll never be able to experience with their own senses. It’s unfeasible to ever touch rocks on the Moon or Mars with our bare hands, but her team is working on building communication strategies and simulations, so that humanity can make the most of the rest of the Universe. Dr Kate Selway’s expeditions, on the other hand, are in “a world that is totally white and featureless”. She spoke of her travels at the ends of the Earth, where senses can become useless when camping at the North or South Pole.
We have a selective attention, according to Dr Luke Simillie. When we focus on one thing, we can miss something else. Yet at other times, as Dr Simon Cropper pointed out, we can be a slave to the senses. We all have different realities and experiences in the world, and some people receive more information than normal, leading to hallucinations and synaesthesia. Dr David Farmer was certainly concerned about an information overload when he introduced himself for his Intrasensory science comedy – sometimes it can be too much for the mind to cope.
“There is no objective truth when it comes to vision,” Dr Maddy Yewers says. Humans have three photoreceptors for colour, while dogs have only two and can’t see red. Other animals, such as bees, manta shrimp and the tawny dragon lizard, can have more and see ultraviolet light too. Dr Enrich Fitzgerald has studied whales’ senses: blue whales produce low frequency sounds in the infrasonic spectrum, which allows them to detect coastlines but not small objects, while other whales have high frequency sound for the echolocation of small objects (like their food).
Professor Arun Ram listens to classical music and associates it with mathematics. Musicians and mathematicians share similar emotions and precision, and so he spoke of the empathy of maths and music. To him, Einstein and Holst took similar paths to create their masterpieces. Dr David Sly is more interested in how we hear the music and is developing the next generation of hearable technology. Not only is he looking to improve sound quality with 3D audio, but smart assistance and sensors can be added to devices to provide stigma-free hearing aids, brain monitoring for seizures, and more.
We feel, see, hear, smell, and taste the world, and we use balance, proprioception and other senses to centre ourselves in it. Extrasensory was an exploration of our experiences – to challenge ourselves, learn which inputs influence the other, and figure out where our senses are heading with advancing technology. The way we experience the world is changing, and now and then, it might just trick you.
Thanks to our amazing colleagues at the Parliament of Victoria for a wonderful evening – video highlights are available from their YouTube channel below: