Get some sensory overload

-September 10, 2013

Ransom Stephens combines his knowledge of physics, electronics, his Measure of Things writings, business, and a few other topics into a book that takes you to the depths of oceans, forests, and people.

The Sensory Deception is the story of three environmentally aware men who develop a virtual reality machine that's so real, it puts you right in the place of an animal or even a person. The experience overloads the senses, forcing you respond by instinct just as an animal does. There's no time to process the information.  Hence, the deception.

The Sensory Deception in Venice

The three technologists/environmentalists, Farley, Chopper, and Ringo, hope to use their technology to raise awareness about endangered species by letting people experience what an animal experiences. They need money, so they start a company. But first, they must raise capital. They also need real-life data to write their software, which they have to get by attaching sensors to living animals, such as a polar bears or a whales.

Getting the money and the data requires Farley the visionary and Chopper the doctor to travel the world and deal with the sinister: terrorists, pirates, rogue environmentalists, mercenaries, corporate PR people, and venture capitalists. Their travels take them to the waters off Somalia and deep into the Amazon jungle. Ringo the engineer stays in Silicon Valley, where he designs all the hardware and software based data from the data-acquisition equipment attached to the animals. Ringo has the really hard work, for. he deals with packet errors and forward-error correction algorithms.

Female sperm whales and their calves swim off the coast of Somalia which attracts bull sperm whales. One which get wired with sensors that record a deep dive and an encounter with what lurks below. Getting there, however, isn’t so easy because it requires Farley and Chopper to get past pirates and the locals who live along the coast and that hold them hostage until pay, well, ransom. Then, when something unexpected is discovered, Farley and Chopper plan to tell their findings to the world. By doing so, they can promote their new product and potentially save people and wildlife at the same time.

While all this is going on, the pressure mounts to launch the product. After all, what does a venture capitalist care about pirates, whales, and environmental issues? So what if the other two are either rotting in a jail or slipping over foreign borders?

The Sensory Deception marks the first time I've read a book whose author I already knew. If you know Ransom then at times you can imagine him sitting next to you telling the story, especially when he starts taking about impedance mismatches to describe the flow of rivers.

While the characters in this book are fictitious, some names of DesignCon participants appear. If you regularly attend DesignCon, then you may know the names. In fact, Ransom may even mention you. Sorry, you'll have to read the book to find out if Ransom put your name in print.

Like many sci-fi thrillers, The Sensory Deception isn’t without its twists. Start by reading the first two chapters twice. You'll pick up clues that will help along the way. But even with that, you're in for a few surprises. The ending came off a little too easy, but then so did the ending of Harry Potter.

Ransom goes a nice job explaining the science behind sensory overload and what it can do. You can learn even more in his EDN blog. In some cases, he provides too much detail about the engineering labs for a lay person, but readers in this community will appreciate it. I would have liked to see more about the politics involved when the unexpected finding off Somalia is finally brought to the surface.

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