A machine that I’ve taken to calling “Pray Pray Revolution” stands out, among hundreds of other prayer systems and devices described in patent applications, due to its inventor’s precisian approach to ritual movement. In 2009 Wael Abouelsaadat, a graduate student in Computer Science at the University of Toronto, filed an application for an interactive prayer system with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. His system for “enhancing prayer” has three key components. First, it has a prayer rug equipped with force sensors and vibrating motors. This pressure-sensitive pad registers when and in precisely what order a user’s knees, hands and forehead touch the ground. Second, the system comes equipped with a camera that takes digital photographs of the user in motion. Through a posture detection technique involving the use of geometric modeling tools, a software program establishes a kinematic model of his or her bodily poses. Finally, this system also features a screen that coordinates the display of scriptural passages—in the original script of revelation or liturgy, as well as in transliteration and translation—with the performance of particular gestures of prayer.
Abouelsaadat’s invention may seem unremarkable to a generation of gamers and engineers familiar with Konami’s video game Dance Dance Revolution and, more pertinently, Microsoft’s innovative motion-sensing device for its Xbox 360 video-game console, Kinect. From a technological perspective, it is indeed a fairly straightforward application of recent innovations. What I find remarkable, however, is the fact that Abouelsaadat approaches ritualized prayer from an engineer’s perspective as a modern problem that can be solved by modern technology. “It is becoming increasingly difficult to schedule ritual,” he claims, “with the rapid life pace of the modern world.” Laypersons lack the knowledge and skills to perform prayer movements correctly and in perfect synchrony with the recitation of apt formulas derived from sacred texts. They want to “customize their ritual experience with minimum time spent in educating themselves.” His praying machine would in particular provide Muslims pressed for time but eager to learn how to pray perfectly with the necessary technological assistance.