In the last three posts, the technologies described were mainly marketed towards use during sex and sexual encounters. Teledildonics (electronic sex toys that utilize a connection to a computing device for the achievement of sexual pleasure) form an interesting jumping off point for a discussion of improving human-computer interaction. In order to understand how bodies and machines work with one another, it is only responsible to take a close look at these interactions when they occur during our most intimate relations, with our own bodies and the bodies of others. Our comfort level with technology in an intimate space is a good indicator for our comfort, in general, with everyday technologies around our bodies. However, working through these interactions means recognizing and exposing interfaces that we normally disregard, or even shy away from. Human-computer interaction is a site of knowledge potential, but only if we remember that making a good interface does not mean concealing or forgetting the materiality of both technology and its interactions with our bodies.
While there are plenty of worthy issues raised by the design and use of digital sexual devices (check out the previous blog entries in this series), it isn't too hard to imagine the possibility of alternative technologies that could help us explore bodies in a productive, healthy way. One project which shows potential for intimate body exploration and education is “The Machine to be Another,” an experimental platform created by BeAnotherLab. “The Machine to be Another” uses the Oculus Rift, a 3D, immersive, virtual reality device, intended mainly for gaming use, but which has been adapted for other 3D environments. The Oculus Rift device consists of a headset which, in “The Machine to be Another,” captures and displays stereoscopic video.
According to their website, “The Machine to be Another” is designed as “a platform for embodiment experience” which BeAnotherLab defines as, “a neuroscience technique in which users can feel themselves like [sic] if they were in a different body.” In one specific installation using “The Machine to be Another” platform, titled “Gender Swap,” two users, one of who appears to conform to socially recognized norms of female anatomy and the other to male anatomy, are positioned in a room together. Each wears a head-mounted display which captures video from their point of view and sends it to the other user (similar to the idea behind video exchange in Glance). However, since the video is piped into the Oculus Rift headset, users see only the other person's body, not their own.
In the video documentation of the installation, users explore each other's bodies through touching and looking. In order to make the virtual reality experience believable, the sensation of touch and the video feed must match. Thus, “both users have to constantly agree on every movement they make,” making participation an investigating into mutual respect as well. While there is no way to fully translate the psychological and mental environment resulting from inhabiting a body different from ones own, users do gain some insight into what it would be like to, at least sensorily, inhabit a body different from their own.
Before moving on, it is important to address an issue which arises in part due to the name of the installation, “Gender Swap.” In the video, we are presented with sets of individuals who appear to be legible within a cisgender binary. Nowhere in the literature or the video is this visual dichotomy broken down or the differences between perceived/self-identified gender or gender/anatomy addressed. Based on the name of the installation alone, it is too easy for a viewer to assume that a “swap” can exist only between the traditional restrictive binary representations of “female” and “male.” While the video does claim that the installation attempts to address issues of “gender identity” and “queer theory,” there is explication of what this means on BeAnotherLab's website. Without context, it is easier to see problematic uses of the platform, such as misrepresentation or fetishization of a body or experience.
Despite the clear fact that improvements could be made to “Gender Swap's” pedagogical strategies, the installation still has potential to facilitate understanding and education about bodies through the use of technology. An important distinction with “Gender Swap,” as opposed to many digital sex devices, is that it is not just about exploring the human body, but also about how individuals interact when their movements and relations are channeled through a digital device. While BeAnotherLab is still attempting to present a relatively seamless interaction with the technology, they do not try to disguise the VR system as something it is not. Typically, digital sex devices concentrate on recreating “real” sex through their technology, as though there were some definite definition of what “real” sex is. In privileging the notion of “real” sex, teledildonics often attempt to disguise the machine or pretend that it is merely a tool to connect with another human, rather than an important part(ner) in sexual exploration. By fashioning a seamless interaction, where the digital device fades from importance, half of our understanding of human-computer interaction is lost. In order to fully take advantage of our technology, we must recognize and come to terms with the fact that the machine is touching us—that the machine is a part of our sexual encounter. With BeAnotherLab, there is acknowledgement that the technology being used is a key circuit in body exploration. Even including “machine” in the name of the system indicates that BeAnotherLab is not trying to cover up the role of technology in their platform.
Understanding the ways we currently interact with, and through, digital technologies is essential for creating better interfaces as we move forward. Intimacy with technology still feels strange or troubling at times. There are undoubtably implicit structures and logics which shape the way we interact with technology, in both intimate and non-intimate settings. It is essential, in order to progress productively and responsibly, that we take apart and analyze these structures in order to understand how they work. When our interfaces are seamless and our machines are hidden, we have no idea how they operate—no idea how they change our experience of human and machine bodies affectively, culturally, and politically. Human-computer interaction does not need to be about making invisible interfaces, it needs to be about creating a site where bodies and technology work together, each aware of the other.