How would the world be like if we could see it through the eyes of others? Through extending our sense of humanity to everyone, would it be able to provoke an exponential change in society?
These questions were the starting point of the founding of BeAnotherLab, an interdisciplinary multinational group dedicated to understanding, communicating and expanding subjective experience, while using an embodied perspective to incite and cultivate affective empathy.
The group combines neuroscience techniques and virtual reality to develop innovative applications in art, scientific research, social projects, healthcare and education. Some of the issues the group explores are mutual respect, immigration, physical disability bias, gender identity and conflict resolution.
Since its founding in 2012 in Barcelona, the lab’s interdisciplinary work consists of provoking emotions and reflections, listening to people, sharing stories, designing subjective experiences, conducting artistic and scientific research, develop hardware and software, design social interactions, perform social activism, create and present performances and installations.
“If we understand each other better and engage into an affective dialogue, we may be able to begin a systemic shift based on empathic exchange”, explains Philippe Bertrand, one of the group’s founders.
The Projects and Research
The Body/Gender Swap (embodiment) installation allows two users from different gender to exchange bodies and perspectives. For the body swap experiment, the team uses the immersive Head Mounted Display Oculus Rift and first-person cameras and both users have to synchronize their movements, otherwise the embodiment experience does not work.
This work was first presented in 2014, as a way of exploring the possibilities of interaction between a pair of users, in order to promote respect and reflect on mutual agreement and gender violence. The video of this groundbreaking experience has reached more than 3.5 million views.
For the Projet Rêve (Virtual Reality and Empathy), BeAnotherLab collaborates with 110 bis, the French education’s innovation lab. The project is created to incite empathy in teachers when they are faced with dyslexic students. Thanks to an immersive virtual reality device, the participating teachers can understand the difficulties of students with invisible disabilities, like dyslexia, in order to better deal with them and guarantee them equal opportunities.
The Library of Ourselves, comprised of 16 short documentary style VR films / embodied narratives, that are accessible to the users at physical stations in different cultural, social and educational institutions around the world. These stories are recorded from a first person perspective, depicting people from various communities who are often faced with social stigma.
Can virtual reality really incite empathy?
Participating in virtual reality experiences could be the key to increasing empathy, according to research by the Virtual Human Interaction Lab at Stanford University. Bertrand, however, believes that the concept of empathy is misused and generalized; for him it is about “affective empathy, meaning the response to someone’s feelings”. What the BeAnotherLab team aims at, is developing empathic capacities in people and cultivate the desire to help. In addition, Bertrand argues, when we convert this feeling into action, we also release our empathic stress, which in itself generates a feeling of well-being.
Some studies show that VR can affect implicit bias but body illusions experiment works impresses this memory in a person of having seen and felt things from the perspective of another.
The team members come from diverse backgrounds such as: Cognitive Sciences and Psychology, Interactive Systems Design, Digital Arts, Computer Sciences, Social Communication, Anthropology, Cultural Management, Philosophy and Conflict Resolution.
BeAnotherLab has presented its work in more than 30 countries in a wide variety of contexts, such as: research centers, schools, museums, libraries, art festivals, detention centers for asylum seekers and grass-roots institutions for human rights. The group collaborates with organizations, communities and academic institutions and contributes to fundamental scientific questions pertaining to the study of the self in relation to others.