Have you ever wanted to switch bodies with someone? To experience the world as someone other than yourself? Though usually the subject of comedies (Freaky Friday), television sci-fi (Star Trek; The X-Files) and Saturday-morning cartoons (pretty much all of them), the concept of swapping bodies or consciousnesses carries with it some interesting ideas about empathy and the philosophy of personal identity. In the pop culture context, such stories usually involve an argument or difference of opinion or perspective being resolved, or at least better understood, by both parties through a shared experience in each other’s bodies. In the philosophical context, things get a lot more complicated, delving into the questions about what the consciousness even is and whether it’s possible to even theoretically separate it from the body, let alone send it to another.
The technology to physically put one’s consciousness into another’s body may not exist yet, and perhaps never will, but the Spanish collective BeAnotherLabs has brought us a step closer with their Machine to Be Another. With the help of the recently-Kickstarted Oculus Rift virtual reality technology and neuroscience from Event Labs in Barcelona and Group Ehrsson in Stockholm, Sweden, BeAnotherLabs has created a two-person set-up with head-mounted cameras, the displays of which are each connected to the other. The headsets are placed on two people, one called ‘the user’ and the other ‘the performer’, “someone interested in sharing a story about his/her existence. This role can be assumed by an actor interpreting a real situation, or rather it may be taken by any person.” The performer goes along with every action the user takes, copying them exactly (i.e. when the user raises their left hand the performer must as well). This creates the illusion that what the user is seeing is their own body, and tricks the brain into believing it. BeAnotherLabs is using the Machine as an “interactive performance installation,” setting up a room for the user to explore via the performer, while the performer speaks their “thoughts” to the user, telling a kind of story as the performance goes along. The Lab’s primary goal with these performances is “to use the ‘Machine’ as a tool to help promoting empathy among individuals of different social, cultural and ideological contexts.”
There is very little information about the Machine at this time, as it has not yet been released for public use. The idea of the project is interesting and ambitious, and the technology it’s based in carries incredible implications and possible uses. BeAnotherLab’s upcoming experiment, titled “Gender Swap,” will be a series of “body-swap” performances between men and women. Societally, there is a common notion that there is a “divide” between these two sexes and that it is impossible for one to understand the other. Feminism and the concept of gender fluidity have helped to erode these concepts, but there are many people who still hold told to them. Perhaps being able to spend time in the body of the other sex will help foster further understanding between the sexes. In addition, a greater understanding of gender fluidity, dysphoria and the transgender experience could be attained through the Machine.
Aside from “Gender Swap,” a video posted by the collective shows that swaps have been tried between people of different races, disabled and able-bodied people and parents and their children. An experiment in which a wheelchair-bound dancer was the user and an able-bodied dancer was the performer allowed the disabled woman to experience dancing on two feet. This experiment is interesting in that it has potential applications for assisting in physical therapy, as some clips at the end of their website’s promotional video suggest. Race-swapping also has potential for greater understanding between groups, as there are studies that suggest giving a white person a black body in virtual reality can give them perspective and affect their views on race.
The “Gender Swap” performance is scheduled for the 15th of March, and in the near future BeAnotherLabs intends to release the source code for the Machine to the public, allowing others to make their own. The possibility of taking a walk in another person’s shoes may be more real than we ever imagined.
For more info, visit TheMachineToBeAnother.org.