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The Undiscovered Continents of Human Potential

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We can think of media technology as a grand exploration of unimagined human potential. Another way to say this is that when we innovate in media technology, we are also exploring parts of the human brain that haven’t been given a chance to demonstrate their full capabilities in the past. This might sound like too ambitious a way to think about people and technology, but it can be supported by examples. For instance, this past year we have for the first time seen consumer electronics products that can track the full body motion of people as they interact through networked video game consoles. (This is Microsoft’s XBOX Kinect.) The obvious way to use this capability is for a person to turn into an avatar in a game, such as an athlete in a volleyball tournament. But the possibilities go much, much further than that. In previous decades when special body suits were required in order to achieve the same effect, I was able to work with children who turned into avatars of the subjects they were studying in school. For instance, a child studying chemistry would turn into a molecule. The child would then squirm and dance in order to learn to dock with another molecule. The reason this is important is that it brings a huge part of the brain devoted to somatic cognition into the process of thinking about science. Somatic intelligence is real but poorly understood. For instance, when you learn to improvise at the piano, a time comes when your hands seem to solve complicated problems in harmony faster than your conscious mind can. While it is impossible to say which undiscovered continents of cognition will turn out to be important for the future of human experience, it is almost certain that some will be, and the tools find out which are finally appearing.

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