Susanna Hertrich

Synthetic Empathy

Artificial commiseration in times supersatured sadness. Synthetic Empathy explores ways to potentially evoke empathy and commiseration, even in times of supersaturated sadness. Three principles of emotional simulation through bodily means are explored – fear, through coldness; panic, through constraint; and grief, through lachrymatory excitation. No longer the mind causes the feeling, but a machine. The emotions of concern here are unpleasant, and generally suppressed. Yet, they are considered highly important – not only from an evolutionary point of view, but also from a socio-psychological one. Providing the bodily signs of commiseration through synthetic means alters the perception of bodily reactions to societal circumstances – and their relation to the artificial.


Shock device > coldnessas an experience of fear
This device allows for the evocation of shivers through the release of an ice spray on the user’s back.

Panic device > constraint as an experience of panic
A motorized contracting rig to press on diaphragm, simulating a panic-like constraint of breathing.

Grief device > Lachrymatory excitation (tears) as sorrowful experience
The third device is a lachrymatory actuation system, causing tears in the users eyes. This is achieved throughan amulet which contains a freshly cut onion. A built-in motor moves the amulet’s upside, opening a hole in its surface that releases the onion’s scent.


Developed in collaboration with Fabian Hemmert during a residency at the Design Research Lab / University of the Arts in Berlin in conjunction with Telekom Laboratories. Additional support from Ulrike Gollner, Matthias Löwe and Anne Wohlauf.