To celebrate the launch of our summer issue, Future Shock and the Barbican's Digital Revolution next month, we're devoting a day to the brave new world of digital. From the future of smell to radical Oculus Rift collectives, check back here throughout the day for more mind-bending glimpses into the future.
Imagine if you could change your gender, ethnicity or age just by sliding on an Oculus Rift headset - what would you do in your new body? How would it change your perspective on those who are different to you? That's the premise behind BeAnotherLab, an art collective that went viral with the gender-swapping opportunities offered by its eye-opening Oculus-based product, the Machine To Be Another.
The Machine isn't just your standard virtual reality programme. When you slip on a Machine-enabled headset, you're also linked up to a performer who mirrors your every move. Thanks to a camera mounted on their chest that feeds in images to your Oculus Rift, you essentially "see" through their eyes. Their movements are your movements; a pair of headphones pipes in a recording of their internal monologue. As one writer observes, "To call The Machine immersive is underselling it. For brief moments, I truly forgot who I was, where I was, and what was happening."
BeAnotherLab don't just think gender-swapping could offer some pretty kinky sex possibilities – for the collective, made up of digital artists, programmers and scientific researchers, the Machine could lead to a radical reimagining in how we relate to others. Empathy for others takes on a whole different angle if you could transport yourself into the body of someone else. We spoke to BeAnotherLab member Philippe Bertrand about why the collective's wild experiments in human relations.
What first attracted your studio to virtual reality and Oculus Rift?
Philippe Bertrand: Two years ago, we were investigating the concept of empathy and the relationship between empathy and identity. Can we understand ourselves better if we can see through the eyes of the Other? What would the world be like?
We got to know of this experiment called embodiment used in neuroscience centres around the world. It basically uses virtual reality glasses to put the user into the position of a digital avatar. They combine visual stimulation with touch and multi-sensory stimulation to trick the brain's perception of the body to make them believe they're in another body. For example, a Barbie doll's body or someone with differently coloured skin.
We decided to hack these procedures for the Machine To Be Another and develop a low-budget, open-source platform that could be used by other artists and researchers. We've been doing experiments where people from Spain could see themselves in the body of someone from Senegal; a mother could see herself in the body of her child; dancers without physical disabilities could put themselves in the body of somebody in a wheelchair.
Your biggest success was the Gender Swap experiment. Can you tell us more about it?
Philippe Bertrand: Gender Swap is actually a game of mutual respect. Both users have to synchronise movement. For example, I see myself in the body of a girl; I can have many things going in my mind, I want to do many things – but I'm inside her body and I feel very fragile about the things that someone else could do in my body. So people act with a lot of respect and concern; they're very conservative about touching their own body. But I didn't expect the huge number of people online who were scared of swapping genders: "Oh this is awesome but I would never try this, only with my wife!" We'd tapped into a very worldwide fantasy!
Does that mutual understanding and respect have long-ranging effects on your subjects?
Philippe Bertrand: The experience lasts five minutes, but the perception of time is very different from user to user. After the experiment we try to get an immediate report, but people struggle to say something. After one week, we do another interview – and that's very rich, because people spend the whole week thinking about the experience and reflecting on it. Of course, you can't change a human person with a five-minute experiment, but we have seen that it provokes quite a good reflection. People say they have dreams for a couple of weeks. You get a lot of flashbacks just after the experience because it's so strong, impactful and immersive.
What is it about virtual reality that fosters that extreme sense of empathy?
Philippe Bertrand: What we do is not actually virtual reality: we do a hybrid reality. It's visual, it's the touch, it's the smell, it's the movement; you step into another level of learning where you learn with your body. The word 'empathy' is hundreds of years old in Western society, but it's a knowledge that has gone back four thousand years. In Hindu philosophy, there is an explanation about the connection of humans to one another that creates a whole system. But society nowadays has lost that perception. So what to do? You could do a workshop, spend time with people, but most people don't do that.
You describe your lab as both creative and scientific. How do you view the work you do as artistic?
Philippe Bertrand: We do the merger of art and science. It allows you to be free to explore, whereas in science you have very rigorous methods – when we started, we were doing wild explorations that you couldn't do in scientific research! The collaboration of art and science is a real trend, and should be a bigger one. They're two combined points of views that could create something spectacular. The role of art should be to provoke new questions.
What are some of the best responses you’ve seen to the Machine?
Philippe Bertrand: During one opening in Eindhoven, Holland, we tried this body swap experiment with a hundreds of people. There was a huge line with couples, non-couples, people who hadn't even met. There are curtains in the installation, so we put people there, set them up, then we close the curtains and let them look for themselves alone in privacy, whatever they want to do. One father tried it with his teenage son, and they both said it was such a strong experience. This is what we're looking for, that point of connection - it's not about sexuality. What level of connection can this experience between father and son of five minutes can provoke in their everyday life? To see yourself in the body of your father and vice versa?
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