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Gender Swap: A VR journey into someone else's body

A Spanish art collective combines the Oculus Rift head-mounted display with first-person cameras in a gender-bending attempt to promote tolerance and empathy.

Participants in Gender Swap synchronize their movements, so when the woman touches her chest, she looks down and sees the man's hands on his chest, and vice versa.
Video screenshot by Leslie Katz/CNET

Who among us hasn't wondered at one point or another what it would be like to be another person, and maybe one of another gender?

Gender Swap, an experiment from Spanish art and technology collective BeAnotherLab, combines Oculus Rift head-mounted displays and first-person cameras to, well, let participants virtually swap genders.

Gender Swap uses BeAnotherLab's low-budget, open-source Machine To Be Another, a system that allows one person to share a story by transmitting first-person video in real time to the goggles of a second person in another, identical room.

Seeing through another person's eyes. Video screenshot by Leslie Katz/CNET

The storyteller, or "performer," as BeAnotherLab calls this participant, also wears a microphone for transmitting personal thoughts to the other's headphones to further enhance the realism of the embodiment experience. For a still greater sense of trading places, those musings can include experiences or memories associated with objects the other person picks up in his or her room -- say a photo, toy, pack of cigarettes, or mirror.

In Gender Swap, two people stand back to back, synchronize their movements, and see in 3D -- wearing a display known to produce amazingly realistic effects -- what the person standing behind them is viewing. They start out moving their hands around and touching their arms and bellies, but as this Vimeo video demonstrating the interactive experiment shows, they then shed clothes, graze their own bare skin, and look into their underwear to give their partner a sense of what it's like to look down and see (hello!) equipment that's not usually there.

The synchronized movements are key to giving participants a sense of inhabiting another's body without being distracted by incongruous gestures.

"The brain integrates different senses to create your experience of the world," BeAnotherLab member Philippe Bertrand told Fast Company. "In turn, the information from each of these senses influences how the other senses are processed. We use these techniques from neuroscience to actually affect the psychophysical sensation of being in your body."

As The Bold Italic suggests, Machine To Be Another could approach territory explored by the Sex With Google Glass project, which is positioning itself as a sex-enhancement app that lets partners trade point of views. But BeAnotherLab sees Gender Swap's potential lessons as far broader than just physical intimacy.

"Throughout this experiment, we aim to investigate issues like gender identity, queer theory, feminist technoscience, intimacy, and mutual respect," the Barcelona-based group says.

In a larger sense, though, the Machine To Be Another "aims to promote self understanding, empathy and tolerance among users" across the spectrum. It's basically highly conceptual performance art, though we could see the technology being used in educational settings to help broaden discussions on gender, race, disabilities, and aging.