How can we create human-centered cultures with human-centered technologies to address our needs, improve our environment, and/or make government decision making more transparent? How do we create technologies that are not only accessible to diverse populations, including those who are not tech-savvy, or those who are isolated, but technologies that respond well to empathy, collaboration, and inspiration?
Vanessa Cox, NAKFI Science Writing Scholar
Georgia Institute of Technology
The team, focused on creating human-centered cultures with human-centered technologies, discussed possible ways to use technology to promote empathy. Too often, rather than broadening people’s viewpoints, modern technology reflects people’s own opinions, views, and biases back to them, an effect known as the echo chamber. The team wanted to use technology to decrease isolation, broaden people’s views, and promote empathetic responses to opposing viewpoints. In effect, the team proposed to use technology to allow people to escape the echo chamber.
The echo chamber is the idea that by reflecting people’s ideas and opinions back to them, technology is reinforcing people’s personal views rather
than exposing them to a wide range of viewpoints. For example, Internet search results and advertisements are customized based on previous websites visited. Similarly, social networks surround people with friends who generally share their world view. By creating an environment in which people encounter different viewpoints less frequently, the echo chamber can lead to decreased empathy. The team thinks this is a significant social problem because decreased empathy can inhibit people’s ability to collaborate and solve complex problems, whether locally, nationally, or globally.
The group considered what promoting empathy might look like. One idea is to create an experience that would allow someone to step into someone else’s skin and feel what someone else is feeling. Could such an experience give someone a better understanding of why different individuals have different points of view? Could it help develop greater empathy for others? Would it ultimately teach people more about themselves?
While researching this topic, the team found useful information from an experimental installation. The Gray Mirror, by Jose Colucci, was designed to encourage young people to make decisions that would help them later in life. With the goal of building empathy for their older selves, young people see images of themselves that have been artificially aged. The purpose of the installation is to give participants the opportunity to empathize with their future selves with the hope that this will encourage them to invest in their long-term health and financial stability. In effect, this would establish socially useful empathy for oneself.
The team’s concept expanded upon this idea. They conceived of an immersive installation with the goal of promoting greater empathy for others. This installation, which the team plans to call the Asymmetric Mirror, would reflect an alternate version of the participants with the goal of opening their eyes to the viewpoints and experiences of other people. The team decided the Asymmetric Mirror would involve three experiences, sight, touch, and sound, which would use existing technology as well as technology in development to engage multiple senses while exploring how technology can be harnessed to induce an empathetic experience.
The first encounter with the Asymmetric Mirror center would focus on the idea of stepping into someone else’s skin and seeing what that person sees in the mirror. In this experience, the participant’s face would be recorded, and facial mapping technology would allow her to see a modified image of what she would look like as a person of a different age, gender, or ethnicity, thereby stimulating empathy for people who have a different appearance.
The second experience would enable someone to physically feel what it is like to be is someone else’s body. In this part of the installation, the participant would wear a biometric jacket, which would impart someone else’s physical response to a video clip. The biometric jacket would use haptics, such as vibrations and temperature to impart the feeling of someone else’s heartbeat, breathing, and muscle tension. The team wants to learn whether feeling someone else’s physical response changes how a person feels emotionally and if it can ultimately teach her something about herself.
The third experience would build on the first and second by allowing a person to hear someone else’s thoughts. The participant would watch a synthesized video clip of herself espousing an opinion she does not believe and has never voiced. Simultaneously, a biometric jacket would allow her to feel the physical response of someone who agreed with the opposing statement. The team wondered if the experience of watching herself voice an opposing opinion would engender greater empathy for people who disagree with her.
In this part of the installation, the same facial mapping from the first experience would be used but voice mapping would be added. The participant would select and read a short text expressing an opinion she agreed with. During this process the participant’s face and voice would be recorded. Then, using facial mapping techniques and voice modification technologies, a computer would create a video of the participant espousing the opposite viewpoint, one she personally does not hold, on the same topic. The team discussed the importance of each viewpoint being a thoughtful, logical statement, rather than an unreasonable emotional outburst.
The team plans to reveal the installation at South by Southwest Interactive, an interactive media conference, where the audience is likely to be aware of the echo chamber and will be excited to try this type of technology-based experimental installation. Because widespread availability is a priority for the team, they also discussed the development of a smart phone app to create empathetic experience.
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