By Jamaal Ryan
“There are very few African American men in this country who haven’t had the experience of being followed when they are shopping in a department store. That includes me.”
After the verdict passed for the Trayvon Martin case, President Barack Obama gave an unscheduled speech at a White House briefing on the Friday after George Zimmerman trial, taking a few minutes to paint his experience as a Black male in America.
It’s an experience that many understand, but cannot empathize with. The looks. The unwarranted hostility. The avoidance. The incapability of blending in. But slip on an Oculus Rift, and you just might be able to empathize a little.
BeAnotherLab is experimenting with ways to allow people to trade bodies with one another. One of their most prized experiments is GenderSwap which takes a male and a female subject wearing Oculus headsets and switches their perspectives. The man sees everything the woman sees; the woman sees everything the man sees. Through a series of mirrored self and collaborative tactile gestures and sensations (running their hands over their bodies, touching each other’s hands), the experiment seeks to facilitate a “body swap”, allowing both subjects to feels as if they’re in each other bodies.
The experiments extend to physically challenged individuals who get a chance to see themselves without their ambulatory limitations; and ideas for the concept consider addressing gender dysphoria, a psychological disorder in which the individual feels as if they’re the opposite gender to their physical make up.
Ideas on how to use the technology also allow looking at addressing implicit bias and issues concerning racial misunderstanding. As a Black man, I can give lectures all day on the subtleties and not-so-subtleties of incidents that I have experienced. These young men cover contact with law enforcement far more profoundly than I could.
But think about how an Oculus Rift can change that. Think about how this form of “other people simulators” can emulate the social navigation of being a Black male. And I don’t just want to reserve it to Blacks, we can’t ignore Hispanics, Middle Easterners, Asians, the disabled, plus sized, transgenders, the mentally ill, and any other underrepresented groups that I missed.
At a new staff orientation at the psychiatric hospital that I interned at, we were shown this video.
It was enough for me to build a new level of understanding and empathy that I’ve never had for the mentally ill population, particularly those diagnosed with schizophrenia.
But a generated simulation in virtual reality with an Oculus Rift emulating people different from us can thread a human connection that hadn’t existed there before.