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

Mona Lisa Overdrive

Welcome back to the BAMA*! At long last, I’ve come to the end of William Gibson’s Sprawl Trilogy. For those who don’t remember, this began with Neuromancer and Count Zero many months ago. I had hoped to include this third and final review in short order, unfortunately other books got in the way. And by other books, I mean a tall stack that I’ve been reading, reviewing, and putting down to make room for even more! I tell ya, being a sci-fi reader/writer/reviewer can really burn your brain somedays!

Luckily, I concluded the book just yesterday and am ready to comment on it at last. And let me begin by saying that it’s very interesting, having read every novel that Gibson has written up until this point, to look back and see how his writing began and evolved over the years. It is also interesting to see how certain thematic elements which would appear in later trilogies – i.e. The Bridge and Bigend trilogies- made their first appearances.

Elements common to cyberpunk, such as high-tech and low liing, were common to all three books in this series, but were also an intrinsic part of Virtual Light, Idoru and All Tomorrow’s Parties. The stark divide between rich and the poor and the transformative power of wealth, so important to the Bigend Trilogy, was also to be found in these earliest works. And of course, stories focusing on freelancers who find themselves in the employ of enigmatic figures, and the power plays that go on behind the scenes between various brokers, were present in all of his novels to date.

However, after completing this novel, I can honestly say that I felt let down. Prior to reading it, I was told that it was the greatest of the Sprawl Trilogy, and the reviews claimed that it was Gibson’s “most engrossing story to date”. I came away feeling that it was less than engrossing and definitely not the best of the three. For one, it seemed lacking in much of the cool elements that made Neuromancer and Count Zero so very fun and intriguing.

However, before I get into all that, I should summarize what this book is about. Here goes…

Plot Synopsis:
The story, much like all of Gibson’s works, contains multiple threads that are interrelated and come together in the end. In the first, we see a Japanese girl named Kumiko, the daughter of a Yakuza boss who has decided to send her to London in the midst of a war between the various crime families.Her only companion is a construct named Colin, a personality that inhabits a portable Maas-Neotek biochip.

Once there, she makes the acquaintance of a freelancer named Sally Shears (aka. Molly Millions) who has been hired out by her father’s people to keep her safe. In addition, Sally is being blackmailed by Swain, the head of the London mob, who has ordered her to kidnap the famous simstim star Angie Mitchell and replace her with the a body double.

In thread two, we meet the intended double, a 16-year old prostitute named Mona from Florida who travels to New York with  Eddie (her pimp) after he closes some lucrative deal. However, when they arrive, Eddie is killed and Mona is forced to undergo the surgery that will make her look exactly like Angie, whom she knows from all her simstim movies and admires greatly. Angie’s back story, about how she was the daughter of the man who invented biochips and placed bioenhancements in her brain (all of which takes place in Count Zero) is all recounted, as is her failed relationship to Bobby (aka. “The Count”).

In thread three, we learn that Angie has returned from rehab after developing an addiction to a designer drug her company was supplying. After a brief stay in Malibu, she learns that it was someone in her inner circle who was giving her the drug in the hopes that it would alter her brain chemistry, thereby disrupting her ability to access cyberspace and communicate with the AI’s now living there (the lao, or Voodoo god personas the AI’s had taken on).

In the fourth and final thread, we are introduced to three residents who live together in an abandoned factory located in “The Solitude”, an uninhabited area in the Sprawl. Gentry is the defacto owner of the place, a cyberspace jockey preoccupied with the way it has changed since events in Neuromancer where AI’s began to permeate it. Slick is his roommate, a robotics enthusiast who builds giant battledroids with the help of his friend redneck friend Bird.

Things for them become interesting when Slick’s associate, Kid Afrika, drops off a man who’s permanently jacked into cyberspace and asks them to take care of him. He leaves the man (Bobby Newmark) and a registered nurse (Cherry) with instructions to keep them safe. After examining the aleph (a biochip with immense capacity) that he’s plugged into, Gentry learns that it is an approximation of the whole data of the matrix.This is where he has been living for the past few years after breaking up with simstim star Angie Mitchell.

In the course of the story, we also learn that Lady 3Jane has died and now inhabits the aleph as a construct. At some point, Bobby stole the aleph and now inhabits it with her. After checking in with her jockey friend, Tick, in London, Molly learns that 3Jane is behind the plot to kidnap Angie Mitchell and replace her, and begins to work to unravel these plans. She travels to New York to meet with the Finn, himself a construct now, and learns that since her operation to Straylight, things have been changing drastically in cyberspace.

Now, 3Jane is looking for revenge, and Angie is intrinsic to that plot. After recruiting Swain and key members of Angie’s entourage to help her, she attempts to conduct the kidnapping while Angie is in New York. However, Molly intervenes and grabs Angie and Mona, who is being set up to replace her, and begins to travel to the Solitude. Angie, under the influence of the lao, is directed to Factory to reunite Angie with Bobby.

Meanwhile, Kumiko, who is alone in London, goes to find Tick and find out what’s going on. Ever since Molly left, she is advised by her Maas-Neotek construct Colin to seek refuge from Swain. When she finds him, she too learns about how cyberpsace is changing and how a massive data profile has entered into the matrix (which turns out to be the aleph). When they jack in, they are pulled into the aleph with 3Jane who attempts to hold them prisoner.

Things come together when Molly arrives in the Factory and Sense/Net mercenaries begin to show up to take Angie back. Meanwhile, in the aleph, Colin comes to their rescue by neutralizing 3Jane’s control over the construct. He also reveals 3Jane[‘s motivations. In the wake of her death, after a life of pettiness, greed and obsessive control, she has become jealous of Angie Mitchell and her abilities. Molly, since they know each other from the Straylight run, is pretty much on her shit list as well!

In the end, Angie Mitchell and Bobby die together, but not before their personalities come together in the aleph, to be forever joined by 3Jane and the Finn. Mona is picked up Kid Afrika who assumes that she’s Angie Mitchell, and is taken off to take over her starlet life. Molly takes the aleph and travels off into the distance while Slick and Cherry get together and head off to start a new life together. And finally, Gentry, who refused to leave Factory, stays behind to contemplate the matrix’s growing complexity.

Meanwhile, a final mystery is resolved. Inside the aleph, Angie, Colin and Bobby are picked up by the Finn who explains how and why the Matrix changed. After Neuromancer and Wintermute at the end of the first novel, the combined AI indicated that there was another like him, a construct similar to the Matrix in Alpha Centauri. Apparently, after he went there, he came back changed and divided into the lao, and the Matrix itself changed. Now, the Finn is taking them there, to meet the alien cyberspace and all the mysteries it holds…

Summary:
As I may have said already, this book was my least favorite of the Sprawl Trilogy. That is not to say that I didn’t enjoy it, mind you. But it was diminished in that Gibson’s usual dark, gritty, and decidedly cyberpunk style – which ranges from opulent to gothic in its appraisal of technology and its impact on society – seemed to be watered down by a much cleaner narrative. In the end, it felt more like reading from the Bigend Trilogy, in that the settings and feel were quite similar.

Aside from taking place largely in London and New York, there was also a lot of buildup and not much in the way of action. And of course, the diversions into the fields of fashion, mass media and the cult of personality; these too felt like they would have been much more at home in the Bigend Trilogy. That was the trilogy that dealt with all these elements, whereas the Sprawl was all about the nitty-gritty, about cool gadgets, mercenaries, cyber-ninjas, deck jockeys, corporate bad guys, high-tech and low-life.

To top it all off, the ending felt quite abortive. Gibson is somewhat notorious for this, but whereas Neuromancer and Count Zero contained plenty of gun-toting and cyberspace runs, this book kept all the action til the very end. And at that point, it was complicated by a rather odd narrative structure and some pretty weak explanations. After learning that 3Jane was pulling all the strings and determined to wreak revenge, it seemed weak that it was all for the sake of punishing Angie out of jealousy.

If anything, I thought her motivations had to do with the Straylight run. That after fifteen years of waiting and plotting, she finally found Molly and decided to kill her and anyone else involved in changing the Matrix. To know that it was motivated by her jealousy of Angie’s abilities just rang hollow. In addition, I thought the usual motivations, like how the wealthy are constantly trying to cheat death, might have been a fitting motivation. I seriously thought at one point that her true intentions were to find herself a vessel, and Angie Mitchell proved to be the perfect choice due to the veves in her hand. Through these, 3Jane could simply download herself, provided she had her in custody and hooked up to the aleph… or something.

However, there was plenty of interest in between all that. While many chapters kind of dragged for me, I did enjoy the scenes where the history of the Tessier-Ashpool clan were reconstructed. The revelation about the Alpha Centauri matrix, which was only hinted at at the very end of the Neuromancer was also very cool. And the detailing of the lao and the evolution of the Matrix since Wintermute and Neuromancer came together, that too was interesting. In the end, I just wished there had been more of this.

And given that this novel did wrap up the previous two novels and brought closure to the whole Sprawl trilogy, I would highly recommend it. Regardless of whether or not it was the best or weakest of the three books, it is the final chapter and contains many important explanations and resolutions, without which the series would never be complete. On top of all that, it is hardly a weak read, and I know for a fact that many people consider it to be better than the others. So who am I to stand in anyone’s way of reading it?

Kudos to you William Gibson. I have now read every novel you wrote. I now move on to Burning Chrome and Johnny Mnemonic, plus any other bits of short fiction and thoughtful essays I can get my hands on. Despite all the little things I have come to criticize about your work, you remain one of the best and most important writers in this reader’s bookshelf! And if I really didn’t like you, why the hell do I model so much of my work on your prose? Like Aeschylus said of Homer, any work of mine dealing in cyberpunk and high-tech is pretty much the crumbs from your table!

Good day and happy reading folks!