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Imagine the possibility of creating stories that can be felt through the audience's own body as something real. For example, what would it mean for the world if citizens from opposite sides of a war could swap bodies and feel what it is like to be part of the family of their own enemy? What if every school child could experience, in full immersion, the life of another young person half way around the world? How would this impact our ability to share our pain, address the challenges we share, resolve conflicts and build empathy, or even improve our emotional resilience as individuals?
We developed a system that allows users to enter the body of a different person and inhabit each other’s experiences in a radically different way; a way of sharing that transports us to a place of preverbal, embodied empathy. The Machine to Be Another is a Creative Commons interactive system designed as a tool for embodied-immersive storytelling. We merge interaction protocols from neuroscience research in embodiment with performance, storytelling and virtual reality hardware to create in users the illusion of feeling themselves in the body of another person. Embodied simulation mechanisms, in particular of actions, emotions and corporeal sensations have been recently proposed as having deep implications in the understanding of empathy and social cognition, perception of one’s body, neural plasticity but also in the formation of concepts .For example, studies conducted by EventLab in Barcelona suggest the effectiveness of inducing body ownership for reducing implicit racial bias. This “body swap illusion” is so strong that a person can experience being in another’s body when facing her own body and shaking hands with “themselves”.
For two years we have been working with an extended community of researchers, artists, activists and members of the public to create performance-experiments related to the understanding of the other and the self. Through this processes we have explored issues such as mutual respect, immigration and physical disability bias, gender identity, conflict resolution, body extension and embodied dance performances.