As Oscar Wilde once wrote, “Life imitates art far more than art imitates life.” This adage holds true for many of life’s aspects, but I believe especially so for science fiction, and now for virtual reality more so than ever.
As part of an open source art investigation, THE MACHINE TO BE ANOTHER seeks to study identity and empathy through the use of a virtual reality platform to simulate embodiment and body extension. The project allows two people (one performer and one user) to interact whereby the user experiences life through the eyes of the performer. This experiment is accomplished through the use of immersive goggles that are head-mounted displays. The user initiates movement, which the performer mimics, but the user sees the movements through the eyes of the performer (http://www.themachinetobeanother.org/?page_id=1000). One use for this experiment will be to allow someone of one gender to experience what it would be like to be the opposite gender. Remind you of anything?
William Gibson’s Neuromancer is considered the progenitor of the cyberpunk genre, with its now-familiar tropes of cyberspace, artificial intelligence, and alienated anti-hero. Case and Molly are the protagonists, where Case is a hacker for hire, and Molly is a bodyguard and general bad ass. In one scene in the book, their minds are joined via cyberspace, where Case is able to “ride along” in her mind as she performs preliminary recon for a heist. He cannot control her movements and can hear, but not talk. He experiences life as a female, if only for a little while, in a juxtaposed cyberspace/“meatspace” environment:
“The abrupt jolt into other flesh. Matrix gone, a wave of sound and color. […] For a few frightened seconds he fought helplessly to control her body. Then he willed himself into passivity, became the passenger behind her eyes.” (Gibson, Neuromancer)
The head-mounted displays used in the Machine project are the Ocular Rift, which uses custom tracking technology to provide ultra-low latency 360° head tracking, creating a stereoscopic 3D view with depth, scale, and parallax. Life imitating art, an educational game prototype was developed for the Rift entitled, “Case and Molly,” named after Gibson’s characters. In the game, Molly wears a pair of iPhones, duct taped together, that give Case a 3D video feed. With Case guiding her, Molly has 30 seconds to reach a specific room. The game is not commercially available, but you can download the code (https://github.com/atduskgreg/case-and-molly/).
Although only in the early stages of experimentation, virtual reality that allows people to swap perceptions and identities can help foster empathy and expose them to various perspectives in ways other than a hypothetical detached way. I am looking forward to the results of experiments involving race and mental and physical challenges, as well as further studies of gender identity issues.