Famed film critic Roger Ebert once said that “movies are like a machine that generates empathy,” describing cinema’s ability to transport the viewer into the worldview, emotions, and experiences of another person through the art of storytelling and visual narrative.
But what if you could take that a step further, and attempt to create a cinematic experience of being another person by actually feeling what it’s like to be in their body?
Now, there’s a new kind of “empathy machine” out there, using the nascent technology of virtual reality.
Machine To Be Another is a live VR art experiment that attempts to virtually place the viewer in the body of another person. It was created by Be Another Lab, a collaborative of international artists, anthropologists, and researchers who hacked an early version of an Occulus Rift to create a VR experience that lets you step into not just another person’s shoes, but their whole body.
The Machine to be Another’s systems, explains Marte Roel, one of its inventors, allows participants to use POV video and mirror each other’s movements to feel like they are “swapping bodies” with another person.
“Two people located in the same space,” Roel explains, “sharing or exchanging perspectives in real time.”
Machine To Be Another is different from other Virtual Reality films in that it is a live experience with interactions taking place in real-time, and not a pre-recorded sequence of events.
“The embodiment aspect of it is fundamental. There is a non-verbal dialogue that is part of this experience” Roel adds. “It creates a connection towards the other person that is very unique, very intimate. I don’t think it can be or is replicated in other projects.”
JJ Devereaux, another artist behind Machine to be Another, says that this connection is the goal of the project, and it is enhanced, but not wholly dependent, on the technology behind it.
“It’s not really virtual reality; it’s just using virtual reality equipment to create this real time experience. And creating this hack in people’s minds where they actually, even for half a second, believe that the body they see in front of them is their own,” she explains.
But the most important part of the experience, Devereaux says, may be what happens after the machine taken away. The two people involved in the ‘body swap’ have a conversation with each other about their experiences.
“It really makes people question what it means to be human after their identity is blurred between who they are and who the other person is,” she adds.
VR entrepreneur and filmmaker Sandy Cioffi and Gretchen Burger partnered with TWIST: Seattle Queer Film Festival to produce TWIST 360, a virtual reality offshoot of the festival. Burger said she’s had her eye on Machine To Be Another for a while and was eager to include it in the TWIST 360 lineup because of the way the project challenges the binary of gender.
Queer culture, she explains, has “historically always moved outside of gender or made us look at gender in different ways, which is completely in line with this project.”
The founders of Machine To Be Another are optimistic, yet cautious about the potential of VR for creating empathetic experiences.
“It is very much about intent, and the commodification of empathy is a real concern,” says Devereaux.
Marte Roel adds that VR, just like any other technological tool, can also be used to ‘de-empathize’ with each other, like in the case of first-person shooter games and other violent video game examples. And while VR has the potential to create a closer human bond, it can also be isolating.
“VR could be the ultimate alienation machine, because it’s your brain in a box,” he adds.
But for participants in Machine To Be Another, the novel use of VR as a tool for compassion and empathy can help people bond, expand their sense of self, and inhabit the body of someone else, if only for a moment.
Machine To Be Another will be at the TWIST 360 Festival in Seattle all weekend. Check out the schedule and get you tickets here.