Swapping Bodies and Minds

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We’ve all experienced the odd feeling that can accompany the sight of a stranger. Curiosity about their life story mixes with a bizarre sense of sadness at knowing you will never fully comprehend their history and their present.

The technological age we live in, however, affords us the opportunity to do more than wonder at the inner lives of our fellow humans. New developments in virtual reality bring us a step closer towards understanding the other living, breathing collections of atoms wandering around this fine planet.

BeAnotherLab is a collective of artists, programmers, neuroscientists, and social activists that uses VR technology to investigate human empathy. They employ The Machine to Be Another–a two-person “interactive performance-installation” in which the “user” dons VR goggles to see through the eyes of the “performer.” The user can control objects in the room that, upon contact, trigger a pre-recorded narration of a story from the performer’s life, giving a sense of the user reading the mind of the performer.

The result is that both participants are thrown into a radical embodiment, a “disassociation that puts you in a place that’s actually safe,” as one participant puts it.

BTRtoday spoke with BeAnotherLab about the different iterations of the project and how it can bridge social disparities.

BTRtoday (BTR): How and why did this project start?

BeAnotherLab (BAL): The project started in Barcelona in 2012; we believed that by being able to see through the eyes of others we would be able to better understand each other and ourselves. From that idea we thought of creating The Machine to Be Another, a low-cost replicable system that would create exponential change through building empathy in different communities and that could create a network for the construction of knowledge.

We did quite a bit of research and experimentation with VR attempting to create the illusion of having a different body. We then created BeAnotherLab, a group that worked in different applications around the concept of communicating subjective experience. Since then, we have visited over 20 countries and the number of the people working in the lab has tripled.

(BTR): There are users and performers, correct? The user experiences the performer’s life? Does it not go both ways?

BAL: We have different setups of The Machine to Be Another. They’re all based on building a strong sense of embodiment through synchronizing vision, motion and tactile feedback in order to create a body transfer illusion. In the classical setup there is a user and a performer that is willing to share a part of her personal life. For this, the performer is trained and instructed to follow the movements of the user. The user, on the other hand, moves slowly but freely and interacts with objects from the personal life of the performer. The actions are accompanied by a narrative recorded beforehand by the performer.

We also have the Body Swap experience: For this, there are two users that are instructed to mutually follow each other while moving slowly. It’s a game of mutual agreement that has some surprising results. For example, there are moments in the experience when users are not sure of whether it was them taking the lead on a specific movement or if it was the other person.

(BTR): Explain the mind reading aspect of the Machine. Does the performer literally speak to the user out loud?

BAL: It’s not really mind-reading, though we have tried having the performer speak to the user in real time. This is very difficult. That’s because there are a lot of attentional factors involved by virtue of being a performer, such as being aware of subtle movements performed by the user. Instead, we pre-record narratives and apply them in different ways. One way is editing the narrative into different segments so that they are triggered according to the user’s actions. For example, if the user grabs a photograph of the performer’s family, she starts listening to a related narrative.

(BTR): Tell us about the gender swap experiment, how did that work? What were the reactions?

BAL: The Gender Swap experiment works by having two users coordinate their actions while having each of them seeing through the other’s perspective–thus, a game of mutual respect emerges. For this we also aim to induce a strong sense of embodiment. One can see her action if the other agrees upon that action. In this sense the sole interaction creates a very intimate space where a non-verbal dialogue occurs. The experience is incredibly intimate and empathetic; it culminates with one seeing herself as a third person from the body of the other.

The reactions to this experience have been very diverse. Everything from having people start dating after the experience to people crying or dancing. An attempt to hug is very common. As mentioned before, in many cases, there are moments when people lose the sense of whether it was them or the other that was performing a certain action. Most commonly people feel shocked when faced with themselves as a third person, once they accept the other’s body.

(BTR): If you are able to generalize, would you say the reaction has been most positive or has it varied wildly in terms of positive and negative responses? For example, has anyone responded with anger at being thrown so wildly out of their comfort zone?

BAL: We’ve been lucky in having had very positive responses in general. At the beginning, feeling dizzy would be the biggest issue, but we have improved our system since then. There are very, very few cases in which people would rather just quit the experience.

We put a lot of weight in having people feel comfortable and safe while the experience is happening; we communicate with each of the users and believe that it’s fundamental for our results.

(BTR): Could this project be a tool in addressing social inequality?

BAL: It is a tool for addressing otherness, and in that sense it can be a tool about empathizing, being compassionate and finding equanimity between communities. So definitely, it’s a tool about addressing social inequalities in all of its forms.

(BTR): Besides the Gender Swap, what other examples or experiences could you share of how the experience has altered participants’ preconceived notions of the social structures they live in? Other examples of social empathy?

BAL: We worked, for example, with Nicole Goodwin, an American veteran mother that served in Iraq while her daughter was still a baby. She was a performer at the United Nations General Assembly where she spoke of her life as a minority and her experience as a military from a critical perspective. We have worked with physically challenged communities in developing performances using The Machine to Be Another. We have also worked with South Sudanese asylum seekers detained in Israel presenting their narrative to the general public. And “We, the children” empowers children by sharing what they would like for their community by letting powerful adults see from their perspective.

(BTR): What project(s) are you currently working on?

BAL: We have plenty of interdisciplinary projects happening at the same time, from scientific research on embodiment and empathy to applications for education, healthcare and social work. We try not to lose our artistic methodology in any of this projects and are currently focused on social applications of our work. Some of the most recent ones include “We, the children” a project that had a pilot in Mexico and some other plans to work with refugee communities across Europe.

One of the aims for this year is to multiply the people involved in the creation of knowledge that follows the aims of BeAnotherLab. We do this through the creation of BeAnotherLab Nodes: small groups of people that work autonomously on Machine to Be Another and related things. We have two new Nodes, in Berlin and Colombia and are about to create the third one in Mexico City.