The Future is Here: VR Body-Swapping

simstimOne 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.

VR_simstim2Be 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.

BeanotherlabHowever, 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.

VR_simstim1But 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.

VR_simstimIt’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:


Source:
fastcodesign.com

The Future is Here: Asteroid Mining!

The concept is not entirely new. In fact, it’s been a staple of science fiction for some time. Moving mining operations, refineries and even heavy industry to the Asteroid Belt as a way of reducing environmental stress and taking advantage of the sheer abundance of natural resources there. It was the concept behind Ben Bova’s The Asteroid Wars trilogy, and was even mentioned as early as 1898 in Garrett P. Serviss’ story Edison’s Conquest of Mars.

But as they say, science fiction leads to science fact. And when it comes to mining the asteroid belt, it seems some wealthy financiers and visionaries are hoping to get in on the ground floor. The company’s name is Planetary Resources, and its backers include James Cameron (of Aliens and Terminator fame) and Google founder Larry Page. Between these three forces, the idea and development capital are being made to being the commercial exploitation of our system’s many, many rocks.

The plan call for the development of viable space craft which will be able to fly out to the Belt, harvest materials, and then return. However, the long term projections involve the creation of mining colonies, heavily automated facilities that will be capable of taking in harvested rocks and ore and convert them to useable materials before they are ever brought back to Earth. After all, while every asteroid is a potential goldmine (literally!), the goal here is to eventually move the majority of the smelting and other potentially harmful operations off of Earth, into space and into orbit.

Click on the link below to read the full article and video below to learn the full extent of the company’s plans. Who knows? If the prospect looks good, maybe Cameron will want to buy the rights to Bova’s series and start making a series of promotional movies 😉

CBC News – Planetary Resources Inc.

http://www.cbc.ca/news/technology/story/2012/04/23/space-mining.html

The Future is Here: Powered Exoskeletons!

Hello and welcome to a new segment on this site. With all the futuristic developments emerging on a daily basis, and given my own obsession with the coming singularity, I thought a segment on new inventions might be worthwhile.

And thanks go to Dave DeMar for giving me the idea for today’s post! As usual, his cheeky and fun take on the day’s events were a source of inspiration. And they also got me thinking… The clip below shows the news story on Rewalk, the latest development for paraplegics which actually helps them walk. Fans of Glee will no doubt remember it being featured in a recent episode, where the character of Artie got one for Christmas and said how an inventor in Israel was responsible for the development.

File:Hybrid Assistive Limb.jpgSeeing that again got me thinking. I’ve been fascinated with the topic of powered exoskeletons for some time, ever since I began researching it for an upcoming book of mine (the planned sequel to Data Miners: Data Pirates!). As part of the larger phenomena known as Future Soldier, it is the latest in a series of advanced technologies which are being proposed for 21st century warfare.

But of course, the civilian applications are just as interesting and a lot more endearing. Sure, giving soldiers super strength and endurance is cool, but providing the handi-capable with the means to walk and achieve the kinds of full-range of motion the rest of us take for granted is kinda more important, wouldn’t ya say?

However, the coolness doesn’t stop there. Powered exoskeletons are also likely to come in handy in an age of deep-space travel and colonization, should we ever get there. After all, acceleration inside of a ship can produce some pretty fierce stress on the human body, and there are a lot of terrestrial environments where the gravity is more than we’re used to dealing with. Suits of powered armor could be just what we need to get around and do our thing until our bodies adapt to spacing and alien environments.

Way cool! With inventions like these, things like the Iron Man suit may not be as farfetched as all that. Once more, we see the future coming faster than previously thought. But then again, science fiction becomes science fact all the time. Also, check out the clip below and prepare to be inspired!