While pitching my next documentary film project at the Dubai International Film Festival , I came across a fascinating man with a fascinating project: Philippe Bertrand, a Brazilian interdisciplinary artist who is part of a collective working on an art meet neuroscience project called the Machine to Be Another.
Quoting its website, the Machine to Be Another is “an open source art investigation on the relationship between Identity and Empathy. Designed as an interactive performance installation, the ‘Machine’ offers users the possibility of interacting with a piece of another person’s life story by seeing themselves in the body of this person and listening to his/her thoughts inside their mind.”
In short, wearing a virtual reality set, two people are so deeply immersed into the body, senses and stories of each other that for a moment in time our brain is supposedly tricked to feel like we can be someone else.
So how does it work?
You need 2 people for this. 1 “performer” and 1 “user”.
The user wears what they call immersive goggles (head mounted displays), through which he/she sees a video from the performer’s perspective. The video transmitted to the user’s goggles is generated by a camera attached to the performer, that records his/her point of view in real time.
The performer’s task is to seamlessly follow every movement that the user performs. The user can move and interact with objects inside a room, as well as his/her own body. The performer also wears a microphone used to tell a short story about his/her existence which is transmitted to the user via a set of headphones. This generates the perception of someone speaking inside their mind.
This non linear narrative is connected to the objects in the room (a photo of someone, a childhood toy, a mirror, etc), making them interactive: when the user interact with one object, the performer starts to speak about his experience and memories related to this object.
Now why is it so fascinating?
The WAW factor lies in the experience. Anyone who has ever put on virtual reality goggles will tell you that a totally uninterrupted immersive experience is powerful. Add that immersive power to a feeling of leaving your body to live through the eyes and senses of another and you will begin to understand why the Machine to Be Another experiment is so meaningful. Nothing has been scientifically proven yet I believe, but the simple experience of looking at yourself but seeing somebody else’s body creates a feeling of closeness to the other unlike anything you have experienced with strangers in modern times.
This sensation is called embodiment. Literally feeling like you are in somebody else’s body. And what this feeling could bring to the world and humanity is an enhanced sense of empathy, and understanding of somebody else’s perception or story. Unlike films or a news segment, which triggers what I would call a “detached feeling of empathy“, i.e. you may feel sad, sorry or moved by a story but you can just as easily flick a channel and move on, virtual reality could make you feel it. The potential repercussions on social perceptions are not insignificant.
In all of us lies a dark aspect of perception called “cognitive bias”. According to Wikipedia a cognitive bias refers to a systematic pattern of deviation from norm or rationality in judgment, whereby inferences about other people and situations may be drawn in an illogical fashion. Individuals create their own “subjective social reality” from their perception of the input. The Machine to Be Another experience, could potentially dismantle this mechanism in us if only for a short while. Now this has yet to be scientifically proven, but if it holds that such an experiment could indeed break or diminish our cognitive biases towards others, the long term effects of this embodiment effect could have ground breaking effects at every level of society for those willing to try it.
Think about a conflict resolution table where parties are asked to experience the reality of the person they are disagreeing with before conducting the talks. Think about bringing opposed communities together by making members of different communities experience life through the others’ eyes. Think what it could do to end or drastically diminish racism if every person was to experience life in a skin colour they inherently dislike.
To think that a few minutes wearing a virtual reality set could end all these evils makes me an optimist. An idealist. Point taken. But what if this could alter our basic feelings of fear of the other. What if this could enhance our empathy? The same could be done with enhancing our feeling of fear of the other. The power of such an immersive experience can be used to any means. So the usecase choice remains ours.
According to Philippe, The Machine to Be Another have so far refused to collaborate with porn, the military or any use case that could facilitate torture, mental pressure and what not. On the other hand, they have happily teamed with researchers and experts to test and measure how this simple experiment could help build empathy, build pain tolerance, treat traumas…
The men and women behind this are not getting paid for this, they have worked tirelessly on these experiments and made them open source to further human progress through technology. If you would like to give them a hand (make a donation) or contact them for further research or to share your story, simply click here.