Hallucinations-on-demand, artificial reefs: How science fiction is inspiring innovation

By Maddie Stone

Dan Novy wants to disrupt your entertainment experience. The Emmy Award-winning visual effects supervisor-turned-MIT research scientist is tired of everyone sitting around mindlessly binging Netflix—he wants us to be able to see, feel, and interact with the fantasy worlds we love. He wrote his PhD thesis on “programmable synthetic hallucinations,” or how to trick the human brain into thinking it’s been transported into an alternate reality. There are no mind-altering drugs involved, just magnetic fields stimulating the right parts of the visual cortex. 

It sounds like something out of science fiction—and in fact, it kind of is. Novy’s dissertation was inspired by the Penfield Mood Organ, a device from Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? that allows users to dial in any mood they want to experience. Novy suspects we’re still a few decades away from being able to write holodeck programs directly into our brains without invasive hardware, but thanks to Dick’s passing mention of a consciousness-altering device in his novel, along with other sci-fi examples like William Gibson’s Neuromancer, there is now an MIT doctoral thesis describing how it might be done.

Related Content