New virtual reality system lets you control someone else’s movements

An out of body experience isn’t just a metaphor or something you have to drink a lot of ayahuasca to have anymore. Yifei Chai, a student at Imperial College London, has designed a virtual reality system to give users the surreal feeling of being in (and able to control) someone else’s body.

One person wears an Oculus Rift virtual reality headset while another wears a head-mounted wide-angled camera to film both people’s bodies. This feed is then sent to the headset, where it’s flipped, so the person wearing the headset looks down and sees the other person’s body. They both also have their movements tracked by a Kinect motion-capture camera, while the person not in the headset wears a suit with electrical stimulators on it. So when the headset wearer moves their arms, the other person’s arms move in the same way – and it’s virtually like being in a whole new body. Sandrine Ceurstemont tried it out for the New Scientist and not surprisingly found it ‘unsettling’.

So far, however, you can’t put yourself in someone else’s shoes, only their sleeves: the suit can stimulate 34 individual muscles but only in the arms and shoulders for now. But with HD versions of the Oculus Rift and Kinect coming in September, Chai should able to design an even more sophisticated system. And it’s not just a high-tech way to play ‘stop hitting yourself’ all day: eventually, it could be used by occupational therapists to demonstrate exercises to help people recover from illness or injury.

Diane Shipley