Not content with the mere five senses that nature gave them, an increasing number of biohackers have turned to magnetic finger implants. But the practice of sensory augmentation need not be confined to these pioneers. Here’s why you should consider getting magnetic implants — and how to do it.
To learn more about this, we talked to Eric Boyd, president of Hacklab Toronto — a community technology space located in Kensington Market. Boyd, along with several other biohackers, are set to get their own implants. To that end, they recently investigated the do’s and don'ts of the practice. Here’s what they learned.
Well, it’s mostly for people who are interested in sensory augmentation. Once you have a magnet in your finger, you can sense things that would otherwise be completely invisible to you. The implant would allow you to sense magnetic fields, pick up tiny metal objects, and determine whether metals are ferrous.
For example, it would be easy to feel large electric fields — like things your microwave or stovetop does. When your hands get near these devices, you can feel the vibrations of the 60 Hz electricity that’s powering through it.
You’d also be able to tell whether an object is ferrous or not — whether it’s made from iron or steel, or from aluminum or some other material.
It's also useful for people who work with electronics. You’d be able to feel the live wires versus the dead wires. The magnet would also enable you to feel the security gates you pass through when entering some stores. They can also be used to detect large electric motors when they start up and shut down — for example, motors in the fridge, or in streetcars.
You could also perform neat tricks, like pick up bottle caps and paper clips.
Okay, that’s really cool — but it’s nothing new. Has anything changed in the years since biohackers first started getting these implants?
Actually, yes — and this is why there’s been renewed interest in getting them. There are finally some technologies that are being developed that will work on top of magnetic implants.
Grindhouse Wetware is currently building a device they’re calling Bottlenose which fits over the finger and then stimulates it with additional senses.
For example, you could build an electronic device that senses infrared and then transmits that information to you by vibrating that implant in certain ways. By doing so, your magnetic implant isn’t so much a sensor of magnetic fields any more, but rather a sensor of remote temperature. It could also be converted into a ranging device, allowing you to use your finger as an accurate way to measure distances. In turn, any kind of electronic sensor could theoretically transduce that signal into the implant to get that experience directly.
Kevin Warwick’s group are experimenting on similar things.
Typically, a person gets only one implant and they put it on a finger. According to most experts, the best and safest way is to get it on the fourth finger (ring finger) of your non-dominant hand. The idea is that, if something should go wrong, it’s your least useful finger.
In terms of the exact placement on the finger, you’ll want to ensure that the magnet doesn’t end up between the touch surface and the bone. Otherwise, if you have an emergency grip situation (say, you’re falling and you quickly need to grasp something), your run the risk of crushing the magnet between your grip surface and the bone. (Image courtesy of BMEzine.com LLC)
So where you want it is in the inside corner of the finger where it’s off to the side and not in the way. This will prevent the magnet from being broken by an active movement, as opposed to a passive action where it could be damaged.
You should use standard neodymium magnets, usually N52 that you can buy on eBay. Get the super tiny ones.
But the magic is in the bio-coating. You’ll want to get some kind of coating on the magnet so that it won’t react with the many things inside your body. You can buy coated magnets, which isn’t always easy to find. Most people have had to coat it themselves because they came much earlier in this era.
Ultimately, we may do it ourselves. We’re thinking of using silicone. Or we could do teflon, or go really hardcore and use gold or titanium, both of which are bio-inert. Todd Huffman’s team at Langton Labs used vapor deposition.
No, we will probably not do it ourselves. And in fact, biohackers tend to almost always get the body artists to do it. But they're not allowed to use anesthesia, so we’ll have to deal with whatever pain there is from the procedure.
By all accounts, the procedure is relatively painful. Essentially, a gigantic syringe is used to squirt the magnet in. The wound looks like a small cut on the edge of the finger, and it takes several days to heal over, and then it kind of starts looking normal. Most people don’t start to get sensation of the implant for some time as the internal scar tissue heals and the nerve endings get back to normal. But after two weeks you’re supposed to have normal operation of the implant along with the sensation of magnetic fields.
Interestingly, it also takes some time for people to recognize that what they’re feeling is the implant. They’re getting a sensation, but their brain hasn’t figured it out. But suddenly there does comes a day when they realize that what they’re feeling is in fact the magnetic field.
Yes, you just slit the finger again and then pinch it out. But you’ll be left with a deep cut in the finger that will have heal over the course of a few days.
Risks include a failure of the biocoating, or having the magnet shatter. You could end up with heavy metals being exposed to your internal body. This leaves people with the horrible decision of whether to cut it out immediately — when it’s in several pieces — or wait to see what happens. There are accounts where, over time, a shattered magnet reassembled itself, and where function and sensation returned.
The risks of wiping out, say, a hard drive, is pretty much zero. The magnets are far too small to have a field powerful enough to influence such things as credit cards or hard drives. In fact, it takes quite a strong magnetic to ruin these things.
But there’s one potential external risk, and that’s MRI scans. You’re not supposed to take in metal objects because of the enormous magnetic fields these devices generate. It’s not entirely known what the effects of such a scanner may have on an implant, and would that damage the MRI machine.