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Being someone else: How virtual reality is allowing men and women to swap bodies

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It’s disorienting to look in the mirror and see yourself as another gender.

I’m wearing my Oculus Rift development kit, and the virtual reality hardware gives me the illusion of being in a comfortable room in an Italian villa. There is a mirror in the room, and in it I don’t see myself, but a woman. My brain doesn’t quite know what to do with this information.

I move my head, and she moves her head. The illusion of being myself, but in the body of a woman instead of a man, makes me dizzy. I remove the helmet and put it away.

The demo Girl Mirror Look is a very rudimentary way for someone to experience inhabiting the body of a woman, but a group of artists, programmers, and activists are taking the idea much further by using low-cost virtual reality equipment to achieve something that sounds like science fiction: They’re allowing people to trade bodies.

Becoming someone else

Warning: the videos in this story contain nudity and may be considered not safe for work.

"How would you feel to swap your body with another?" Philipe Bertrand asked me. "Would you better understand the other if you see through their eyes?"

The cost of the equipment BeAnotherLab is using to create this illusion is modest: The group uses secondhand PlayStation Eye cameras, arduino-powered servos and motors to control the movement of the camera, laptops, and Oculus Rift headsets. Each set up costs around €500, or $685 but the "gender swap" setup requires two sets of equipment to function, one for each participant.

"In Brazil there are many problems with violence against women, which comes from their own partners," Bertrand explained. "What would it be like if a man could see through the eyes of a woman? Would he act in the same way?" The team has run many different experiments placing someone in the body of another, such as looking through the eyes of an migrant worker as they talk about their experiences, but the goal is always empathy, a connection with another person.

"People... realize that the other body is from another person, and you don’t invade this"

In the case of the more guided, narrative virtual reality experiences that don't require both subjects to mirror the movements of the other, the "performer" goes through different actions, while audio of them telling a story is played for the viewer. The viewer can look around freely using their virtual reality headset to explore the reality of the other person, the cameras are driven by motors and servos to give the viewer agency.

It may be hard for me to explain what it's like to get five kids ready for school, but imagine if you could watch the scene through my eyes, while I go about my morning routine, explaining everything to you step by step. You could look around to try to keep your eyes on the kids, or watch my hands as I clean bottles and make waffles. You'd get an actual sense of what my life is like, for better or worse.

Now imagine the same thing done by a factory worker in Foxconn.

These empathy experiments require a performer and a viewer, but the gender swap experiments require two parties of different genders to participate equally. Both parties, one man and one woman, wear the virtual reality headset and a camera.

The camera projects the point of view of the woman to the man’s headset, and vice versa. The next step is something akin to calibration: you both reach out and shake the hand of someone in front of you at the same time. This allows your mind to lock into the other person’s body. Not only are you seeing out of their eyes, but you’re given the illusion of touching what they touch.

"This is the starting point of the embodiment sensation. People see themselves, you look around and see your body, look at your hands, they have the agency, and we shake hands usually," Bertrand explained. "It’s stronger than touching objects, because it’s the human touch, which is very strong. This is the connection that takes people into the embodiment experience."

This is an experiment you can do at home as well, and it’s been used to create funny videos for talk shows. It’s fairly easy to use the sense of touch to fool your brain into thinking it’s inside an external limb or body, and you can then play with that sensation in interesting, or scary, ways.

In this situation one person begins to move their body in slow, deliberate ways, and the other person mirrors their movement. The idea is to flow together, to make it seem as if both parties are in control of their respective bodies. It’s a sort of dance, where participation itself creates a layer of consent.

"Usually what happens is I start to do a movement, and the other is following me, and the other takes control of the movement, and I have to follow her. It’s constant agreement," Bertrand said. "Like a relationship. You do a little bit for yourself, and a little bit for the other. It’s very intuitive."

The illusion is effective, according to Bertrand. You don’t feel like you’re in virtual reality, you feel as if you’re inside the body of someone of the opposite gender. "It’s a beautiful thing," Bertrand said. "Gestures should be constantly agreed on by both users."

The sense of empathy can be powerful, and this leads to both parties being almost reverent about the body they’re experimenting with. "People tend to be very respectful towards the other, and realize that the other body is from another person, and you don’t invade this," he said.

This technology has many uses; there have been studies that show seeing yourself as someone of another race may decrease your implicit bias. One such paper showed you can use virtual reality to place someone in the body of a dark-skinned avatar, and the evidence suggests that this at least temporarily reduces implicit bias against that race.

"This effect appears to be specifically linked to racial bias since embodiment in an alien, purple skin virtual body towards which no stereotypes or prejudices can be automatically associated, did not result in the same response," the report stated. The implications here are fascinating: You don't even have to walk that virtual mile before you begin to empathize with someone of a different race.

There could also be healing value to some of the experiments, such as allowing someone in a wheelchair to "borrow" the body of a dancer to feel like they can move and dance again. Even if you can't walk or move again, if someone is willing to share their time and body with you, you can be given the illusion of doing just that.

"It promotes empathy between two people," Bertrand said. "At the end of the performance, the user tends to go to the performer and hug them and talk a bit, to try to understand more about their life. To create some kind of peaceful feeling of closeness and awareness of their social condition."

While Bertrand is quick to note he’s not a scientist and has no background to discuss the potential mental health benefits of this technology, I did speak to at least one expert who thought the ability to explore the body of another gender could be helpful in treating individuals suffering from gender dysphoria.

Gender dysphoria is a state in which individuals identify as a different gender than their birth-assigned sex. My feeling of discomfort and unease at seeing a female form looking back at me from the mirror in the Oculus Rift demo gives one an indication of what it must feel like for someone who knows they are a man or a woman, but sees and feels the opposite reality in their body.

A sense of empathy for the suffering of others

Dr. Anne Vitale works in the field of gender dysphoria, and treats patients struggling with gender identity.

"I can see where this sort of virtual gender-role expression could be at least temporarily helpful," Dr. Vitale told Polygon. "It is a form of cross-dressing in a way. The image you see on the outside is much closer to what you really want, than what cross-dressing would give."

Jessica Janiuk is a software developer who often speaks on gender issues and has blogged extensively about her life as a trans woman. "I know that video games throughout childhood growing up have always been a source of ... experimentation might work? Depending on the game, of course, because of course in many games you have male protagonists," she told Polygon.

"Back in college when Second Life was coming out, that was a great source of relief for feeling and seeing myself as the person that I was and I know there are many trans people who escape into video game land for similar reasons," she continued. "It allows them to be themselves, to create a character who represents how they see themselves."

Janiuk was excited to talk about the technology, and how it fit into her past uses of video games to explore gender. "Using virtual reality to explore that, and cope with your own feelings of gender dysphoria, I think, would be amazing," she said. "It’s something that I’ve thought about since the Oculus Rift came out."

Other are a little more skeptical. Gaming journalist Sam Prell was assigned the male gender at birth, transitioned to live as female for 6 years, and is currently living as male again "There are a lot of expectations and harsh realities when you’re going through gender dysphoria," he said. "If you’re going through the physical transformation, there are a lot of things you have to either learn to accept, or that won’t match up to what you expect."

The road to transitioning is long, and inhabiting a body you may never be able to achieve could worsen someone's self-doubt, he explained. "I would be cautious about using it, because I’m afraid it would set up unhealthy expectations," Prell said.

Dr. Vitale was also careful to point out the shortcomings of the technology. "The first issue I have is with tactility. As the male runs his hands over what appears to be a female body he will still feel male textured skin and hair," she explained. "He will also feel flatness even as he runs his hands over what appear to be ‘his’ rounded breast."

"The only way around this would be not to touch any part of the body," she continued.

Dr. Vitale was skeptical of how useful this technology could be to treat those with gender dysphoria, but she sees great value in allowing everyone to experience what it feels like to be inside the "wrong," body, or to experience a disconnect between how they feel and the body they were given.

"It should help cisgendered women partnered with gender dysphoric males to appreciate what gender dysphoria is and what drives their partner to seek relief through hormonal and surgical means," she explained. "The machine allows her to retain her female gender identity while seeing herself having a muscular hairy body, no breasts and penis and testicle appendages she might experience as being ‘very wrong.’"

Prell echoed these thoughts. "You take a straight man and a straight woman who don’t have any sort of gender dysphoria, and put them into this simulation, then I think you might see more beneficial results where you get more respect about intimacy and what’s okay and what’s not okay," he said. It's rare that you're able to give someone the feeling of being inside a body that doesn't match their gender, and doing so may help more people understand the challenges of transgender individuals.

Bertrand admits that the technology is new, and he's unequipped to deal with the possible medical or scientific value of the work the team is doing. They're looking for partners in the scientific or art world to help with taking the next steps, and of course funding is a part of that process.

The early results, however, have been encouraging. This is a new way for people to learn more about others, and themselves. "Using this system you can help people understand each other, and have more tolerance towards each other." Bertrand said.

"For those of us who live that feeling of dysphoria, we don’t have that relief of being able to just lift the helmet off," Janiuk said. Experiences like the Girl Mirror Look demo prove that it's possible to give the rest of us a sensation of being in the body of the opposite gender, but this is only a taste of what people struggling with gender dysphoria are going through, and we can always remove the helmet. Even this limited understanding may be enough to help others feel more empathy, however, and that's a large achievement.

"I think a little bit of empathy," Janiuk said, "is something the entire human race needs more of."

Disclosure: Sam Prell worked for Ben Kuchera at the Penny Arcade Report.

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