Beyond VR: the Pretender Project’s sense-altering technology

Technology is enabling us to experience what it’s like living in another person’s skin, allowing for empathy made possible by digital means 

As human beings, we are prediction mechanisms. We don’t really know what the world is like because arguably we only have five senses: vision, scent, taste, hearing and touch. Almost everything that we understand around us is a mirror projection of what is actually happening. There are so many things that we don’t perceive; infrared, for example. In that sense, our capabilities are fairly limited – we are essentially peeking at the world through five small holes. When technology comes into play, we can use it to extend our physical human capacity.

If you think of the current technologies we have and the interfaces we’ve created, they very much follow some of the five senses. We have screens to look at, speakers to hear from and keyboards and tablets to touch. But very few digital experiences involve, say, scent and taste. It’s like we have all of the pieces, but we aren’t allowing ourselves to see the full potential of combining them. This is why I am developing the idea of digital empathy, in order to treat technology as a human entity rather than machinery.

One of my side projects is the Pretender Project, which is a tool that could digitally bring together human and machine by controlling another person’s body. Using a two-part system, one person is the controller, whose motions are tracked, and the other is the avatar, whose muscles are stimulated. Although this is initially disorientating, it only takes people about 30 minutes to completely accept that they’ve been swapped into another body.

In production design there are ‘third age’ design tools that can be used to help understand the physical constraints of different body types and abilities, such as obese suits. However, none of these help you understand the emotions or real-life experiences of people. In the Pretender Project, one can embody another human being and explore first hand the differences in social attitudes towards people of different race, physical ability, culture or gender, allowing for more understanding and empathy.

The project has also been awarded government grants from the UK to further develop the physical synchronisation aspect. We tried this system with people with motor neuron disabilities because we can bypass the motor neuron connection between the brain and the muscle, providing them with great potential to regain control over their bodies. There are endless opportunities that could arise from this in the future.

In my most recent talk at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity I wanted people to try to understand how limited we currently are in terms of digital empathy. While new developments in virtual reality may seem exciting, one huge limitation is that everything is essentially fake – you are a floating entity in fake settings that you can’t physically touch. With the Pretender Project, you are able to experience a total immersion into the virtual world by physically being another person, greatly enhancing the ability for empathy. Finer motor control over muscles also means this technology could be used by trainers, for example. Or, athletes could record their body movements and sell them as services on apps. Other people would then use these services to completely experience say, the golf swing of Tiger Woods, or to learn the muscle memory of a dance in a short amount of time.

There needs to be a change in the way we view the technological world. As long as we treat technology in a detached manner and starve it of its ability to interact with us, machines and humans can’t create digital empathy. With the Pretender Project, the beginning and the end is always human. For me, digital empathy is not about putting on VR headsets – it’s about rethinking the entire structure of the digital world today.