One of the most interesting and speculative things to come out of the William Gibson’s cyberpunk series The Sprawl Trilogy was the concept of Simstim. A term which referred to “simulated stimulation”, this technology involved stimulating the nervous system of one person so that they could experience another’s consciousness. As is so often the case, science fiction proves to be the basis for science fact.
This latest case of science imitating sci-fi comes from Barcelona, where a group of interdisciplinary students have created a revolutionary VR technology that uses virtual reality and neuroscience to let people see, hear, and even feel what it’s like in another person’s body. The focus, though, is on letting men and women undergo a sort of high-tech “gender swapping”, letting people experience what it’s like to be in the others’ shoes.
Be Another Lab is made up of Philippe Bertrand, Daniel Gonzalez Franco, Christian Cherene, and Arthur Pointea, a collection of interdisciplinary artists whose fields range from programming and electronic engineering to interactive system design and neuro-rehabilitation. Together, the goal of Be Another Lab is to explore the concepts of empathy through technology, science, and art.
In most neuroscience experiments that examine issues of empathy and bias, participants “trade places” with others using digital avatars. If a study wants to explore empathy for the handicapped, for example, scientists might sit subjects down in front of a computer and make them play a video game in which they are confined to a wheelchair, then ask them a series of questions about how the experience made them feel.
However, Be Another Lab takes a different, more visceral approach to exploring empathy. Instead of using digital avatars, the group uses performers to copy the movements of a subject. For example, racial bias is studied by having a subject’s actions mirrored by a performer of color. And for something like gender bias, men and women would take a run at living inside the body of one another.
Bertrand and company have taken this approach to the next level by leveraging the tech of a paid Oculus Rift virtual reality headset, renaming it the Machine To Be Another. In the project, two participants stand in front of one another, put on their headsets, and effectively see out of one anothers’ eyes. When they look at each other, they see themselves. When they speak, they hear the other person’s voice in their ears.
But things don’t end there! Working together, the two participants are encouraged to sync their movements, touching objects in the room, looking at things, and exploring their ‘own’ bodies simultaneously. Bertrand explains the experience as follows:
The brain integrates different senses to create your experience of the world. In turn, the information from each of these senses influences how the other senses are processed. We use these techniques from neuroscience to actually affect the psychophysical sensation of being in your body.
In other words, in combination with being fed video and sound from their partner’s headset, by moving and touching things at the same time, the Machine To Be Another can actually convince people that they are in someone else’s body as long as the two partners remain in sync.
It’s a radical idea that Be Another Lab is only beginning to explore. Right now, their experiments have mostly focused on gender swapping, but the team hopes to expand on this and tackle issues such as transgender and homosexuality. The group is currently looking to partner with various organizations, experts and activists to help them further perfect their techniques.
It’s a unique idea, giving people the ability to not only walk a mile in another’s shoes, but to know what that actually feels like physically. I can foresee this sort of technology becoming a part of sensitivity training in the future, and even as education for sex offenders and hate criminals. Currently, such training focuses on getting offenders to empathize with their victims.
What better way to do that than making them see exactly what it’s like to be them? And in the meantime, enjoy this video of the Machine To Be Another in action: