Have you seen the episode called “Striking Vipers” of Black Mirror season 5? If you have not, then stop reading and go watch it. Don’t worry, I will wait and the post will still be here.
Now that you are back, let’s take some moments to think about what the episode depicts in terms of technology: it shows a future where you can get into a fully immersive world that allows you to have a body swap experience, you can even change your gender.
This kind of all-immersive technology that even controls how your body responds to the virtual world with a full control (or even override) of your sensory nervous system experience is quite far. Furthermore, I am quite sure that it will be difficult today to even say with confidence if this is possible at all. So my focus here is to reflect on the following: can we have a (limited) body swap experience today?
We kind of can: our proprioception (our sense of self body position) and consciousness does not allow us to feel completely in another body. What an immersive technology like VR can do is to confuse some of our senses to induce some doubt. This is not comparable to a complete body change but does create interesting experiences. Think about the following: you are a woman and once you put a VR glasses the only thing that you see when you look at yourself is the body of a man. The brain will not allow you to change quickly your embedded identity (probably not even question it), but you will be confused because your eyes is showing something that does not mach with your own conception of the reality.
Aside of being quite confusing, it is also quite cool. And this is something that can be tested today: for example, Be Another Lab is exhibiting and installation that allows to body swap between two people (check the video). They ask participants also to replicate their movements to improve the experience as well, which is quite smart and involves additional sensory information. They have other similar experiences that focus on living life experiences of other people to study, between others, how empathy works.
This links also with another topic that, in my opinion, developers of immersive experiences always should have present: you can always have ways to ‘fool’ the user to make the experience feel more immersive (in the previous example, making the users to mimic their movements). Media and entertainment has been done this for ages, in fact, human beings are quite smart, but the attention can be controlled by scene composition and mood can be affected by, for example, colors or images. And that creates experiences that make larger impact in ourselves.
We may not have the technology to completely control the nervous system of human beings, but that does not mean that we can create experiences that seem to control it. Body swap is just an example of one of these experiences.