British artist pledges 28 days in isolation wearing a VR headset
In a attempt to look at how our relationship with technology can potentially change our inherent identity, British artist Mark Farid is pledging to spend 28 days isolated inside virtual reality, seeing only footage of someone else's life. This social experiment called "Seeing I" is currently raising funds on Kickstarter and if successful will see the brave artist lock himself away in a small room, equipped with nothing but a bed, toilet and shower, all the while being completely visible to the public.
"Our existence, the only truth we can be certain of, has become a simulation of life, where these experiences are our life," says Mark Farid, artist and subject. "If our consciousness is experienced through the perception of sight and sound; through interaction, through technology and through our conception of knowledge, to what extent is it really our own?"
During the Seeing I experiment Farid will spend 24 hours a day for a period of 28 consecutive days wearing a virtual reality headset, which will feed footage of someone else's life, named the "Other." The Other will be a volunteer member of the public who will record the continuous and unedited events of his life by wearing a bespoke pair of glasses fitted with two camera lenses, an onboard computer, binaural microphones, data storage and batteries that last for 24 hours.
This recording will start six days before Farid undertakes the experiment, so that a team can be on hand to prepare the exact meals at the exact time as the Other experiences them. This means Farid will see, smell and eat everything that the other person does and even go to the bathroom and shower at the same time as he does.
Furthermore, Farid will not have any contact with another human being during this time, apart from a daily one hour consultation with a psychologist via an audio ear-piece when the Other goes to bed. It will be a test to see how long or how quickly Farid will lose his own sense of identity and adopt the traits of the Other.
"One might imagine various outcomes of this experiment: that he might become more empathic, being Other- rather than self-focused; that he might experience distorted perceptions and even delusions, given that his own brain is not receiving its normal input but instead is experiencing a kind of sensory deprivation; or that he might establish that the brain can in fact adapt relatively quickly (hours or days?) to a new reality, and then adapt back again at the end of the experiment, with no serious side-effects," says Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, Cambridge University Professor of Psychology and Cognitive Neuroscience. "Whatever the result, [it] will be ground-breaking and give rise to a raft of new hypotheses and methodologies for social psychology to explore more systematically and in larger samples."
Farid's virtual reality headset will feature a screen for each eye, allowing him to look around and experience a 180 degree field of view. He will also wear noise-cancelling headphones to ensure he only hears the sound from the Other's life recordings. Onlookers will be able to watch Farid in his isolation box, which will also feature a projection of the Other's video footage, so that they can see what Farid is seeing in real time.
The entire project will be filmed and cut into a feature-length documentary, including discussions and input from psychologists, neuroscientists and other relevant academics. A team of medical practitioners will also be on hand during the entire course of the project and if they feel things are getting too risky for Farid, he will be pulled out of the experiment prematurely.
"I am concerned about how such a long project, which involves voyeurism on the part of Mark and also on the part of the public in regard to Mark, will affect his mental health and well being," says Professor Barbara Sahakian, Cambridge University Professor of Clinical Neuropsychology. "It could be extremely disturbing and it is unclear whether any potential damage to Mark's mental health could be repaired."
The Seeing-I project hopes to kick-off in the latter half of 2015, but this depends on whether they can meet their £150,000 (US$235,300) crowd-funding goal on KickStarter, which closes on December 18. Backer rewards include a Seeing I cardboard VR headset, a chance to meet the team and a prototype of the glasses worn by the Other.
If successful, members of the public who are interested in volunteering to be the Other can apply on the project website after November 28, (who will need to be at least 21 years of age; a male and in a long term heterosexual relationship). Farid's psychologist will choose the successful candidate.