The lyrics to Kate Bush’s pop hit “Running up That Hill” are a little on the abstract side, but the singer has commented that what the song is really about is the difficulty that lovers have seeing things from the other’s perspective. The concept is made clear with the line “If I only could make a deal with God, and get him to swap our places.” Trading perspectives has always been a trope in fiction, from music to films like Freaky Friday, but the reality of trading brains for a day has always been the stuff of science fiction and fantasy.
Or so it’s been up until now. BeAnotherLab is a new company that is experimenting with using the Oculus Rift virtual reality device to communicate not digital realities, but physical realities from one user to another, allowing men and women to switch bodies for a moment and see what it’s like to be one another.
In the past, BeAnotherLab has let people watch an artist’s creative process through their own eyes using what they call The Machine to Be Another. Participants in the male-female body switch experiment were instructed to mimic one another’s movements while wearing headsets hooked up via laptop to the cameras mounted on the other participant’s headset.
This may seem like sort of a low-tech solution using high-tech gadgetry, but the effect is surprisingly real, according to co-founder Philippe Bertrand.
A wide range of people from all fields have contacted the group about possible applications in psychology, therapy, queer and gender studies and beyond. One suggested use could even involve utilizing the technology to help eradicate racial bias.
BeAnotherLab sees themselves as sort of a scrappy, low-budget group in the field pioneered by techies and neuroscientists the world over, including Stockholm’s pioneering Group Ehrsson. BeAnotherLab may not have invented all of the technology and concepts that they are putting to use, but they’ve framed this application of virtual reality in a way that makes clear just how powerful the experience can be in changing the way we think about ourselves and one another.
So-called “mirror” neurons help us to identify a sense of self. Even though we know that this is not our arm, these mirror neurons seem to react the same way when we stretch it out and touch it when we’re looking, first person, down somebody else’s arm while we do the same thing.
There are a lot of possible applications for this concept, ranging from the fun to the frightening. Imagine giving your pet dog a chance to see the world through your eyes. They might think twice the next time they want to go to the bathroom on the floor. Imagine the new types of data that could be collected from animal research when we can see the world through an endangered gorilla’s eyes.
We could better understand the mentally ill, the physically disabled and those from various backgrounds that we might never truly be able to appreciate without a first-hand memory to recall. We could make politicians live as poor people for a day under the very laws they pass.
The experiment may sound so simple, and slightly goofy, that we could understandably doubt much practical application. At a glance, it doesn’t seem like this is much different from putting your face really close to the TV screen while watching video shot in first person, but the actual experience of being fully immersed in another person’s audio-visual experience, while aping their physical movements yourself, is a lot more powerful than it might sound.
Certain kinds of understanding can’t really be achieved through data alone, they have to be earned through experience, and that’s what these Oculus Rift experiments will make possible.
“Seeing the world through another’s eyes has long been the stuff of science fiction,” said entrepreneur from Scottsdale Jason Hope “allowing us to see ‘how the other half lives’ is one of the most exciting applications of consumer-grade virtual reality equipment.”
Combined with emerging prosthetics technology, transmitting a sense of touch electronically, this could be just the beginning of a whole new world of possibilities.
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About Author: Amy Taylor is a business and technology writer. Amy began her career as a small business owner in Phoenix, AZ. She enjoys writing about business technology trends. When she isn’t writing, she enjoys hiking with her Alaskan Malamute, Sam.