Use the Machine To Be Another in Seattle this weekend.
Use the Machine To Be Another in Seattle this weekend. Courtesy of the artists

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Yesterday before breakfast, two friends told me about their sexual assaults and workplace sexual harassments. Before breakfast. A few days ago, my best friend wrote publicly for the first time about her rape, in a piece called "What it's like to survive an assault by a man like Donald Trump."

What it's like to survive a man, in other words, who doesn't even recognize sexual violence when he sees it, or commits it. My best friend's rapist offered to make up for the rape with a steak dinner.

Get out of yourself, I keep telling myself this election season. Don't give in to the paralysis of situational depression. The piling-on of this horrifying election is not going to stop.

"My work, which before circled concepts of empathy, has now dropped squarely into it," Seattle artist Tia Kramer wrote on Facebook after I asked how the election was affecting artists.

So: Empathy.

Do this.

This weekend, you can try out a machine that is designed to create empathy through visceral, perceptual feedback from a virtual-reality system designed by BeAnotherLab, a team of nine artists and technologists who live all around the world.

The Machine To Be Another is their creation. Sandy Cioffi is bringing it here as part of the VR segment of the queer film festival Twist, Twist360°, and it will also be part of the art-and-technology festival 9e2. (My understanding is that you'll be able to use it yourself during the Twist360° presentation, which lasts two full days, but only watch artists using it at the Saturday Sunday brunchtime demonstration with 9e2.)

Even after reading multiple articles, watching videos, and interviewing the artists, I am still hazy on how the piece actually works. But I do know the goal: to provide the illusion that you have swapped bodies with another person, through the swapping of perceptual information such as sight and sound, live-recorded and live-projected in body-worn monitors, headphones, and VR headsets.

The BodySwap protocol—there are many versions of the Machine to Be Another, including GenderSwap and BodySwap, but BodySwap is the one coming here—includes two simultaneous users and a provided assistant.

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"There are different stages," BeAnotherLab artist Marte Noel explained to me. "First, accepting and understanding the contingencies of the system and the new body; then there is a surprise of not only being able to move, but to touch other people (assistants) with real skin and expressions. Then the assistants help by bringing a mirror in, so that participants can look at themselves in the mirror from the other's perspective. And, at last, a curtain is opened so that participants can see themselves as a third person, standing in front of them, and are able to shake hands with themselves. It's a pretty surreal experience that plays with the foundations of our perception."

I'm willing to bet by looking at the Machine's popularity in other cities around the world that it's going to draw crowds. Use of it is first-come, first-served, so if you want to do it yourself, get there early.

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