01/03/2013 06:03 GMT | Updated 29/04/2013 06:12 BST

Technological Body Modification: In Pursuit of Singularity

Researchers and amateur practitioners alike are fusing man and machine to speed up communication and boost intelligence. Body modification programmes that embrace the study of and desire for the transitioning of humanity through technology are emerging around the world.

Researchers and amateur practitioners alike are fusing man and machine to speed up communication and boost intelligence. Body modification programmes that embrace transhumanism - the study of and desire for the transitioning of humanity through technology - are emerging around the world. And while some body hackers seek implants that enhance seemingly minor aspects of their everyday lives, many others are responding to concerns about improving physiology and extending life.

The viral hit True Skin is an independently produced short film by US-based Stephan Zlotescu's N1ON studio. Based in a futuristic Bangkok, the film depicts a transhumanist world in which ageing is shunned and brain-controlled electronic implants, bionic limbs and augmented vision are the norm. Picked up by Californian media production house Warner Brothers for a feature-length production less than a week after its online release, the film's popularity indicates an increasing fascination with ideas of man melding with machine. In True Skin, the life-enhancing and life-extending properties of body modifications improve upon the weaknesses of the human body, such as susceptibility to illness and ageing.


Body Hacking: 'Grinders' & 'Wetware'

While large institutions debate the possibilities of such technologies, a burgeoning scene of underground body modifiers is putting them into practice. Described as 'grinders' - DIY hackers who design, build and implant their own modifications - the group takes its cues from body modification artists such as Arizona-based practitioner Steve Haworth.

Noted as one of the most influential and progressive in his field, Haworth's work with subdermal (beneath the skin) and transdermal (protruding through the skin) modifications includes implanting neodymium metal magnets, allowing his customers to magnetise small objects to their bodies and feel small vibrations caused by electromagnetic fields. Once all sensitivity from the often-painful procedure subsides, the human nervous system - often described as 'wetware' - begins to acknowledge and incorporate these vibrations. The brain's neuroplasticity responds to them as it would a sixth sense, understanding them as an intuitive indicator that can detect, for example, dangerous levels of microwaves or areas with strong Wi-Fi signal.

This ability to sense the otherwise invisible has inspired others to follow in Haworth's footsteps in spite of limited safety research. British bio-hacker Lepht Anonym currently has magnets implanted in several fingertips - some of which she made and implanted herself by coating neodymium in the popular DIY polymer Sugru as a means of making the implants waterproof and non-reactive.

Applying this technique practically, Anonym is working on Southpaw, a magnetised implant to be embedded in the leg that vibrates as the user changes direction to give a constant awareness of direction in relation to magnetic north. Anonym hopes that, once its vibrations become second nature, Southpaw will act as an implanted compass helping users to experience journeys differently and enhance their sense of direction.

DIY Suppliers: Grindhouse Wetware

One of the most significant groups, Pittsburgh-based Grindhouse Wetware, manufactures and sells a device called the Bottlenose ($100) that translates UV, Wi-Fi and temperature data into a magnetic field that can be felt as vibrations by users with magnetic implants. In this way, a user could tell how powerful an internet café's signal was before choosing to have a coffee there, or could detect an increase in the sun's UV rays and apply sun-block before getting burned. In today's data-centric society, devices such as this remove the clunky visuals associated with information analysis and allow users to "feel" data and respond intuitively as they would if they encountered a foreign smell or a warning sound.

Grindhouse Wetware's latest project is HELEED, an LED-based Bluetooth-enabled device that records the user's biomedical data such as heart rate and temperature. When implanted under the surface of the skin, HELEED's wirelessly rechargeable LED display can be viewed through the skin, allowing for medical data, warnings or even text messages to be displayed. "The major variable is that these devices will give people a slight edge over those without them," Lucas Demoveo of Grindhouse Wetware says.

Harnessing recent research into silk-protein-based biodegradable electronics from the University of Illinois and Tufts University, future implant devices made of silk, magnesium and silicon could be designed to simply dissolve when they are outmoded, allowing users to upgrade themselves without painful removal procedures.

Sensory Enhancements: Hearing Colour & Seeing Heat

Electronic technologies that feed signals into the human body are becoming increasingly popular as a means of augmenting reality and enhancing the senses. A sufferer of achromatopsia (complete colour-blindness), Neil Harbisson has experienced visual colour as sound, processed via a chip installed at the back of his head, since 2004.

Developed by Harbisson and British digital designer Adam Montandon, the Eyeborg device uses bone conductivity to transmit sound sensations directly into Harbisson's brain. Absorbed into his psyche to the extent to which he dreams in sound, Harbisson describes his new condition as sonochromatism - the inextricable linking of hue and tone to audio frequencies.

While the Eyeborg explores creative possibilities, medical applications of bionic eye systems that enable electronically simulated vision are being explored by Bionic Vision Australia. Successfully trialled by Australian patient Dianne Ashworth, the institute's current prototype uses an implant placed behind the retina to stimulate nerves, creating the sensation of sight. Containing only 24 electrodes, it gives very low-resolution vision. The institute is currently developing its Wide-View and High-Acuity devices that will allow visually impaired users to identify obstacles and to read text or identify faces, with 98 and 1024 electrodes respectively.

Temporary Cyborgs: Market-Ready Alternatives

Detachable headsets are proving a popular method of allowing users to experience temporary technological enhancements. While US internet search engine giant Google's Project Glass prototype presents a vision-based augmented reality system that responds to voice commands, other developers are looking to neurologically synched devices.

Californian neuro-sensor company NeuroSky released its MindWave Mobile device during 2012. The $130 wireless headset reads the wearer's brainwaves in the same way that sound-waves can be detected, allowing for the system to process thoughts as a means of interacting with apps and games. Detecting varying levels of concentration and attention, NeuroSky's system is iOS and Android compatible, and provides the basis for the Puzzlebox Orbit. This independently manufactured remote-controlled toy helicopter can be controlled by thought, and was funded via online crowd-funding platform Kickstarter.

Australian Neurotechnology firm Emotiv has released the EPOC headset ($299), which responds to the brain's electric signals using a similar system. With applications for gaming, music, visual arts, market research and medical uses such as mind-controlled electric wheelchair use, the headset highlights the practical and leisure uses for such technologies.