Sensory Synesthesia and Human Perception

Sensory synesthesia is a neurological phenomenon in which stimuli from one modality of sensory input leads to involuntary and automatic experiences in another sensory modality. There is some debate regarding the classification of synesthetic phenomenon, but several striking observations reveal that at least a small percentage of people experience a heightened interconnectedness between their different senses.

Kiki, Bouba, and Visual Perception

In 1929, the German-American scientist Wolfgang Kohler observed what is now known as the Bouba-Kiki effect [1]. In 2001, Vilyanur S. Ramachandran replicated Kohler’s experiment with college students in the United States and India, and found a large consensus between participants prompted to provide auditory names to visual objects [2]. The findings of Ramachandran and Kohler demonstrate that sensory information appears to carry a predictable and consistent scaffolding of associations and relationships to other modalities of stimuli. The participants’ visual perceptions of the shapes printed on the page were used to make judgments of the appropriate auditory sounds that ought to be associated with those shapes. VS Ramachandran and his colleague Edward Hubbard suggest that the evolution of language may not be entirely arbitrary—instead, the naming of objects in space may reflect a natural association of auditory stimuli with the visual, tactile, olfactory, and overall perception of the object’s nature. Sounds (and by extension, all sensory information) may automatically convey some degree of symbolic meaning in relation to experiences from other senses.

Auditory-Tactile Synesthesia

When viewed with an MRI, the brain activity of a patient with a localized lesion in the right ventrolateral nucleus of the thalamus revealed modifications to the individuals’ perception. “Initially, the patient was more likely to detect events on the contralesional side when a simultaneous ipsilesional event was presented within the same, but not different sensory modality.” Eventually, this transformed into a form of synesthesia “in which auditory stimuli produce tactile percepts.” This study revealed the likelihood that the experience of sensory synesthesia may be acquired after a brain injury [3].

Visual-Tactile Synesthesia

Mirror-touch synesthesia is a condition in which watching another person being touched activates a similar neural circuit to actual touch. When observing individuals who experience mirror-touch synesthesia with brain imaging, their empathic responses to the experiences of other people appears to be heightened [4]. This form of synesthesia also appears to augment an individual’s ability to recognize and interpret the facial expressions of an interaction partner [5]. Although a thorough empirical explanation for the phenomenon has not yet been developed, there are different potential theoretical explanations currently being investigated in more detail. The Threshold Theory explains it “in terms of hyper-activity within a mirror system for touch and/or pain,” and the Self-Other Theory explains it “in terms of disturbances in the ability to distinguish the self from others.” [6] The two theories carry different implications: the Threshold Theory implies a localized phenomenon impacting the mirror system, while the Self-Other theory implies a more general difference that may be reflected in other cognitive processes as well.

Enhanced Sensory Perception

Some scholars argue that artistic experimentation may be rooted in sensory synesthesia, by allowing an artist to describe a sensory experience using a wider range of detail [7]. Although scientists have developed methods of testing and profiling synesthetes [8], much of the theoretical framework used to understand cross-modal sensory perception remains speculative. Although VS Ramachandran mentions a possible relationship between synesthesia and enhanced sensory perception [9], it remains unclear exactly how this enhancement manifests itself in a person’s ability to perform different activities or pursue artistic endeavors. In a preliminary study exploring the perceptual processing abilities of synaesthetes [10], “there was a relationship between the modality of synaesthetic experience and the modality of sensory enhancement.” In other words, a synaesthete who experiences color triggered by other sensory modalities will also have enhanced color perception. A synaesthete who experiences tactile sensations will have enhanced tactile perception. Further research is required to understand exactly how these enhanced perceptual abilities manifest themselves in common tasks.

Artists with Senaesthesia

Wikipedia has a large list of notable individuals with synaesthesia. The list includes several famous artists:

  • Lorde
  • Billy Joel
  • Vincent Van Gogh
  • Eddie Van Halen
  • Stevie Wonder
  • Kanye West
  • Hans Zimmer

Although anyone without synaesthesia can make art, the process of linking different sensory modalities appears to help some artists produce their most notable works.


[1] Köhler, W (1929). Gestalt Psychology. New York: Liveright.
[2] Ramachandran, V.S, & Hubbard, E.M. (2001). Synaesthesia — A Window Into Perception, Thought and Language. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 8(12), 3–34
[3] Ro, T., Farnè, A., Johnson, R. M., Wedeen, V., Chu, Z., Wang, Z. J., … & Beauchamp, M. S. (2007). Feeling sounds after a thalamic lesion. Annals of neurology, 62(5), 433-441.
[4] Banissy, M. J., & Ward, J. (2007). Mirror-touch synesthesia is linked with empathy. Nature neuroscience, 10(7), 815-816.
[5] Banissy, M. J., Garrido, L., Kusnir, F., Duchaine, B., Walsh, V., & Ward, J. (2011). Superior facial expression, but not identity recognition, in mirror-touch synesthesia. The Journal of Neuroscience, 31(5), 1820-1824.
[6] Ward, J., & Banissy, M. J. (2015). Explaining mirror-touch synesthesia. Cognitive neuroscience, 6(2-3), 118-133.
[7] Van Campen, C. (1997). Synesthesia and artistic experimentation. Psyche, 3(6).
[8] Van Campen, C., & Froger, C. (2003). Personal profiles of color synesthesia: developing a testing method for artists and scientists. Leonardo, 36(4), 291-294.
[9] Ramachandran, V. S. (2003). The emerging mind: the Reith Lectures 2003 (p. 867). London: Profile.
[10] Banissy, M. J., Walsh, V., & Ward, J. (2009). Enhanced sensory perception in synaesthesia. Experimental brain research, 196(4), 565-571.

Getting Started with Haptic Feedback (Arduino Guide)

The DRV2605 breakout board from Adafruit.
The DRV2605 breakout board from Adafruit.

Adafruit provides a breakout board for the DRV2605 haptic driver from Texas Instruments. Although the example tutorial included with the product describes a quick way to set up the driver with an eccentric rotating mass (ERM) motor, we prefer using a linear resonant actuator (LRA) for increased precision and enhanced haptic feedback. You can use the breakout board with an Arduino Uno to quickly make a prototype of a system that delivers precise vibrotactile cues.

Materials & Supplies



Additional Resources

Creating Haptic Feedback

Step 1: Soldering

The DRV2605 breakout board attached to a LRA.
The DRV2605 breakout board attached to a LRA.

Solder the header strip onto the breakout board, and solder the LRA onto the breakout board. After this step, your DRV2605 breakout board should look like this:

Step 2: Wiring and Hookup

  • Connect VIN on the DRV2605 to the 5V supply of the Arduino
  • Connect GND on the DRV2605 to GND on the Arduino
  • Connect the SCL pin to the I2C clock SCL pin on your Arduino, which is labelled A5
  • Connect the SDA pin to the I2C data SDA pin on your Arduino, which is labelled A4
  • Connect the IN pin to an I/O pin, such as A3

Step 3: Testing and Creating Effects

Adafruit provides a very useful Arduino library for the DRV2605 that you can use to get started. In particular, we recommend looking through the example code to get an idea of the effects you can produce. In page 57 and 58 of the DRV2605 datasheet, you can find a table of all the effects you can produce “out of the box.”

Step 4: Creating Your Own Waveforms

Since you can also set the intensity of the LRA in realtime, you can design your own waveforms and effects by changing the value over time. Adafruit also provides an example for setting the value in realtime on Github. You can combine this example code with a waveform design tool like Macaron to customize the feedback provided by your new Arduino-powered haptic device!

Moment is Made in the USA

Printed circuit board being assembled.
We’re proud to be based in Phoenix, Arizona. Our main office is located at the Center for Entrepreneurial Innovation, but we can’t contribute our part to the American economy by shipping jobs overseas. That’s why Moment is made in the USA.

We work with local companies whenever we can. For manufacturing and assembly, we work with Quiktek Assembly in Tempe, Arizona. For component sourcing, we work with Avnet, a leading electronics distributor headquartered in Phoenix. Many of our primary partners are within a quick 15-minute drive from our office, and we also are working to source all of our plastics and miscellaneous parts from local distributors.

Beyond keeping Americans employed, we can guarantee a few things almost every big brand (including the ones named after fruit) cannot:

  • we pay fair wages
  • we never employ underage workers
  • our facilities are powered by cleaner sources of energy
  • we recycle whenever possible
  • we meet all EPA regulations

Map of where we product our products.We produce and assemble our products in the United States, and we’re always looking for opportunities to bring jobs back here to the USA. It’s the only way we can ensure we deliver an honest, high-quality product that isn’t subsidized by environmental catastrophe and unfair practices. Continue reading “Moment is Made in the USA”

How We Filmed our Crowdfunding Video for Under $2,000

We’re a small startup, and we don’t have a large marketing budget. When we started working on our crowdfunding campaign, we took a look at a few of the most successful crowdfunded products:

We asked ourselves: what do they all have in common? They all had a video with excellent production value – a video that could cost anywhere from $25,000 to $100,000 or more depending on whether or not the actors were paid.

As a startup that’s bootstrapped and hasn’t raised a large round of investment, we needed to get creative. We used $2,000 of our savings to film a video that could have easily cost 10x as much. We recruited a bunch of our talented friends who are musicians, dancers, researchers, and body builders. Then, we filmed footage and edited until we reached our final iteration:

Continue reading “How We Filmed our Crowdfunding Video for Under $2,000”

Pre-Orders Start Today

The wait is over. We’ve finished the design, iterated on the hardware, and written thousands of lines of code. Now, we’re ready to start collecting pre-orders for Moment, the first device that communicates entirely through your sense of touch.
For the first 24 hours, backers will receive a special early bird price of $99 — you won’t be able to get this price anywhere else, ever again.

Spread the word.

Help us bring Moment to as many people as possible. Share Moment with your friends on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or elsewhere!

Tag us in your post, and we’ll send you free Somatic Labs swag.

3D Printing: Ready for mass market?

Shrek 3D Print

While revising the 3D design for Moment, I started off using a Makerbot Replicator at TechShop. These machines were the first to usher in an era of accessible consumer 3D printing. The bundled software is easy to use, and the printers generally work well. That said, with a $2,000 price tag, they aren’t truly accessible to the average consumer, and a TechShop membership can also be expensive if you don’t use it regularly. With affordable rapid-prototyping in mind, I began asking “Can you get started 3D printing for less?”.

Now, with the Monoprice MP Select Mini, you can. At an MSRP of $200, I decided to get one and try it out for myself. It doesn’t disappoint. It works with a wide range of filaments (ABS, PLA, XT Copolyester, PET, TPU, TPC, FPE, PVA, HIPS, Jelly, Foam, Felty), including a PLA-based wooden filament from Hatchbox. After 3D printing a few models of Shrek and some geometric Pokemon, I was impressed.

Pokemon 3D Print

The Good

  • absurdly cheap ($200)
  • heated print bed
  • compatible with many different filaments
  • solid exterior built of steel and aluminum (very few plastic parts)
  • full color LCD display on the printer
  • MicroSD card slot
  • works with Cura software from Ultimaker
  • possibly capable of connecting to wifi networks in a future firmware update
  • print bed leveled out of the box
  • active user community
  • 1-year limited warranty
  • extremely accurate Z-axis motor (possibly more than 100 micron resolution)

The Bad

  • limited print space (120x120x120 millimeters)
  • very minimal instructions – debugging can be hard
  • cheap built plate material (scratches easily)
  • imprecise temperature regulation
  • no enclosure or hood around prints
  • non-standard parts that require warranty replacement or buying a new printer


If you’re looking to get started with 3D printing, or want to try out different filament types inexpensively, buy this printer. Its price sets it apart from the competition. Any comparable printer is easily 3x the price, but the additional cost may also come with improved reliability—only time will tell whether the MP Select Mini is a durable product.

Our 10 Favorite Phoenix Coffee Shops for Productivity


Giant is our favorite place to work, as long as it isn’t too crowded – its clean interior has a variety of places to sit and work – bar stools, regular tables, benches, and cushioned seats. During the day, it’s often very quiet, but sometimes it can be crowded at peak hours.

Giant Coffee


Although it can be loud at times, Lux is a very large coffee shop with a lot of space. A single cup of drip coffee also buys you unlimited refills, so you can sit and work for several hours as long as you don’t mind a little bit of a crowd. For those looking to work into the hours of the evening (something startup founders may be a bit too familiar with), Lux also offers many local beers on tap, providing a lively evening work environment.

Lux at Central

Continue reading “Our 10 Favorite Phoenix Coffee Shops for Productivity”

The Best Coworking Spaces in Phoenix

As more freelancers, small business owners, and startups get started in Phoenix, an increasing number of office spaces are now coworking spaces – buildings that house people from a diverse range of backgrounds, each with their own line of work. Below, you’ll find a list of the best coworking spaces in Phoenix.

Photograph of the interior of CO+HOOTS


CO+HOOTS is a coworking space that also provides programming and events focused on helping entrepreneurs create successful businesses. The space is shared between individuals and growing businesses, and the community consists of designers, architects, lawyers, PR agents, software developers, startups, real estate agents, and photographers.

Restaurants Nearby

Coffee Shops Nearby

Continue reading “The Best Coworking Spaces in Phoenix”

Virtual Textures with Oculus

The Oculus Rift, released March 28, 2016
The Oculus Rift, released March 28, 2016

Earlier this year, Oculus released the final consumer version of the Oculus Rift, after much anticipation following their historic Kickstarter campaign and subsequent acquisition by Facebook. However, with Oculus currently losing the VR war to the more expensive HTC Vive, Oculus now seems to be planning to beat other players in the VR space with advanced haptics. Researchers at Oculus are currently working on a project called HapticWave, which uses a circular metal plate placed on top  of a ring of electromagnetic actuators to communicate precise haptic feedback to your hand, when placed on the plate. Continue reading “Virtual Textures with Oculus”

Macaron and the Future of Haptic Editors

Screenshot of the Macaron interface.
A screenshot of the Macaron haptic effects editor.

Earlier this week, we had the pleasure of talking to Oliver Schneider, a graduate student and researcher at the University of British Columbia. Working at the Sensory Perception & Interaction Research Group, Oliver spends most of his days developing new software and hardware interfaces that engage our sense of touch. He described various techniques he used to create development tools and interfaces for creating rich tactile effects, including Haptic Jazz – a system for taking improvisational input on a tablet and translating it in real-time into a vibrotactile sensation. Continue reading “Macaron and the Future of Haptic Editors”