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This augmented reality installation will melt your brain and your hand

Anyone who’s ever spent enough time writing, drawing, playing videogames, gardening, or building can recognize the moment. It happens when the flurry of activity stops and, for a moment, you look down idly to your hands. Catching a glimpse of these things that have just helped you complete your task, a bizarre sensation takes over. You wiggle your fingers, making sure they’re really yours—really under your control. For some reason, it feels like you are only just now becoming acquainted with these things you’ve lugged around your whole life. These things that help you accomplish nearly everything required to live. Suddenly, these lifelong fleshy companions become utterly alien. Completely sober, your mouth gapes open as you think Whoa. Hands are weird. Like, really weird.

They’re the appendages that have essentially granted human beings super powers. Okay, maybe not super powers necessarily, but the ability to hold tools tighter than any other primate. And while that may not sound like a whole lot to write home about, it’s one of the reasons why we can accomplish everything from building a complex machine like automobile to etching our thoughts onto more permanent surfaces than human memory.

Hands swing at our sides forgotten, day in and day out. 

We think about these god-given gifts too little. Despite the fact that hands are our primary vehicle for receiving tactile information, they swing at our sides, forgotten, day in and day out. As one of the creators of an Augmented Hand Series (Golan LevinChris Sugrue, and Kyle McDonald) laments on his blog about their limb-centric project “we frequently take our hands for granted, thinking with them, or through them, but hardly ever about them.”

Seeking to reproduce that moment of clarifying wonderment and defamiliarization, the Augmented Hand Series asks visitors to place their unsuspecting appendages into a reality-bending box. An average, everyday hands goes in; an uncanny replicant of your body part comes out, projected onto a screen for everyone to gawk at. The creators designate the instillation as “an instrument for probing or muddling embodied cognition, using a ‘direct manipulation’ interface and the suspension of disbelief to further problematize the mind-body problem.” Basing their design principles around the cognitive and philosophical hypotheses dictating that the mind takes queues from the body, the defamiliarization of the hand in the instillation theoretically functions as a destabilization of the cerebral identity as well. Though he cites alien hand syndrome and phantom limb syndrome as real-world evidence of this theory in action, Golan Levine does concede that the interrelationship between the mind and its body is an endlessly complex one.

Importantly, the projected distortions featured in the project remain strictly in the realm of what its creators call the “hand-aware,” meaning that no drastic changes occur to the basic structure of the hand’s appearance. All ten of the distortions, alterable by the user via touchscreen, fall under the categories of “performing structural edits to the hand’s archetypal form; others endow the hand with new dimensions of plasticity; and others imbue the hand with a kind of autonomy.” These alterations can manifest as an added finger, a “Vulcan Salute” (cleaved middle fingers) or—my personal favorite—an angular exaggeration which renders your limb a discarded banana peel looking thing. Rather than utilizing more obvious “funhouse mirror” type of effects, each transformation in the Augmented Hand Series walks the unsettling line between reality and surreality.

Though recently featured at Cinekid Festival in Amsterdam this past October, the series has essentially been a work in progress since 2004. Golan says he and his collaborators longterm preoccupation with the work in a talk back in 2013, where he describes the project’s aim as a unification of “the whimsical and playful with the uncanny and the monstrous.” Perhaps nothing demonstrates these juxtaposing goals more than the works cited as inspirations, which range from a biologist’s exploration of the arbitrariness of the hand’s five-finger evolution (Eight Little Piggies by Stephen Jay Gould) and a Dr. Seus book (I wish I had eleven, too!which Golan classifies as “an empathetic acceptance of difference, and a recognition that there are many ways to be.”

The project’s aim is a unification of “the whimsical and playful with the uncanny and the monstrous.” 

Aside from an exploration of the mind-body problem, the series also serves an exploration of childhood. Specifically, Golan references a moment in his own young life when an artwork depicting distorted hand imagery triggered an unforgettable experience of shock. Seeing so many variations on such a commonplace body part forced him to face “this variety of experiences, which meant that the world is quite complicated.”

During the Cinekid Festival, the creators finally got a chance to see just how successfully their project was in delivering such an experience to their young visitors. At one point, you can practically hear one kid’s internal brain fuses melting in a radioactive explosion, when he turns his face back to the crowd as if to ask “What is life?” Golan even says that, often, young visitors, “uncertain of whether to believe their eyes, peeked into the box to double-check what was (not) really happening to their hand.”

While the creators worked hard to ensure that the software supported a wide range of different-sized hands and skin colors (along with jewelry, nail polish, tattoos, birthmarks, wrinkles, arthritic swelling, and/or unusually long, short, wide or slender digits), “There are still many more kinds of hands to support, and doing so remains an area of active research for the project.” Though the augmentation explores the monstrous, the overarching message seems to be that variety in the human form is not only normal and healthy, but also kind of mind-blowingly awesome.

Currently, the trio is looking to expand with other transformations as well. Though they haven’t specified which, some concept art teases at the possibility of a pixelated middle finger and a Xenomorph-baby-mouth type hand-inside-of-hand augmentation. To follow the project’s ongoing process, you can follow each respective artist on their website, available at the bottom of this link.