Verge Fiction: The Empathy Machine

Hands-on with the PathoGlyph Wavelength


I don’t usually cry at CES. But then again, I’ve also never watched a film while being dosed with pharmaceuticals and lightly electrocuted — which is exactly what’s happening at virtual reality startup PathoGlyph’s tiny booth.

VR experiences are now a dime a dozen at CES, but the PathoGlyph Wavelength prototype device doesn’t fit any of our standard notions about the medium. Based on a Samsung Gear VR paired with an IV drip, an electrode array, and some other tubes I don’t quite understand, it looks like someone described the basic concept of virtual reality to a mad scientist and let them loose in a hospital. I shudder to think how many Clockwork Orange jokes PathoGlyph’s founder, a former film trailer director named Michael White, has endured over the past several days.

Which isn’t to say the jokes are unfair, exactly. The PathoGlyph Wavelength produces something White calls “empathic immersion,” the emotional version of a simulated virtual landscape. If virtual reality hijacks our eyes to show us the world through someone else’s, the Wavelength hijacks the whole nervous system. In other words, it actually controls how you respond to what you see, hear, and touch.

PathoGlyph Wavelength

"Empathy is literally hard-coded into our DNA," says White as I brush my hair out of the way of the electrodes. "We’ve never been content with living one life, because we either want to share ours, or feel somebody else’s. And we’ve never been able to." This is exactly what virtual reality, according to many people, is supposed to allow. Chris Milk, head of VR film studio Vrse, has called virtual reality "the last medium," the first art form to place viewers truly inside a story. But to White, that’s not enough.

"So imagine you’re trying to watch your old Christmas home movies," he says, by way of example. "With a headset, you can maybe see exactly what you saw back then, but you’re never going to feel the same way — that excitement of going downstairs and opening up the first present. There’s always going to be a wall between the person you are now and the one you’re pretending to be. And this is the first time you can stop pretending."

Obviously, though, nobody recorded emotions along with our Christmas home movies. For most of the Wavelength’s "tracks," PathoGlyph developers construct and place different feelings at key places in the story, the way a film editor might layer audio cues. Nor are these feelings a precise translation of real human experience. They’re electrochemical cocktails that produce generic sensations — approximations of sadness, joy, or even complex concepts like jealousy, which White describes as the combination of anger, anxiety, despair, and desire.

"There's always going to be a wall between the person you are now and the one you're pretending to be."

The centerpiece of PathoGlyph’s demo is a companion track to Henry, Oculus Story Studio’s second animated film. Even without the Wavelength, Henry does its best to push your emotional buttons: it’s about a lonely, big-eyed hedgehog in search of a friend. When I first watched the short last year, though, I was charmed but not particularly moved. This time, as Henry sighs at the sight of his empty birthday party, something clenches in my chest. I’m seized with an overwhelming connection to this little creature, and I catch myself blinking away tears, noticing suddenly that the Gear VR’s fuzzy mask is lined with black gaff tape — less absorbent and easier to clean.

These clearly aren’t real emotions. The sadness comes on too strong and too suddenly, and the happiness that follows is a little… giddy, perhaps. But then, it’s hard to say what "real" emotions even are. The Wavelength’s artificiality oscillates between the feelings of alcoholic magnanimity, major depressive episode, and crying at a montage set to Leonard Cohen’s "Hallelujah" — all those times where your conscious mind can’t stop your body from expressing something it knows is false.

Even if you can identify the feelings, their origins remain mysterious. Some things make intuitive sense: stimulating adrenaline production, says White, triggers a "fight or flight" response. But others are so arcane that it’s not clear even PathoGlyph understands how they work. "Everything doctors do with the brain is 90 percent trial and error," says White. "If you go to a psychiatrist, they’re going to give you something that you know, maybe worked for another person who felt sort of the same as you, and if that doesn’t do it, they’ll run down a list until something does. It’s a black box, and we’re as qualified as anybody to run with it."

PathoGlyph Wavelength

White, who says he worked briefly as a lab tech, freely admits to having little technical expertise. He credits PathoGlyph’s scientific breakthroughs to a fellow tech named Trudy Jacobson, now a neuroscientist at MIT. But even with the presence of Jacobson — who was unable to attend CES — questions about safety remain. The very real side effects of antidepressants and similar medications are balanced against potential health benefits, but the Wavelength is almost purely recreational, though White says that it could augment more established virtual reality treatments for phobias and PTSD. While White says that PathoGlyph has conducted little formal testing, he claims that only a few people have had an overtly negative reaction. "We want to move people, not damage them," he says.

So where is the line between being moved and being damaged — and between empathizing and rubbernecking? In private, photo- and video-free demo sessions, PathoGlyph is showing off a prototype that won’t be displayed on the show floor: a recording of a Syrian bombing from the perspective of a bystander, paired with separately recorded 360-degree video.

Syria, as the piece is simply called, is not the product of an editor’s deliberate construction. It’s drawn from the real response of a local volunteer, an artist who agreed to be wired into biometric readers 24 hours a day. Using a baseline profile developed beforehand, her brain activity is translated into a series of signals that the Wavelength processes through its sensory palette. Unhurt by the blast, she downloaded her raw emotional data and sent it to PathoGlyph — and, by extension, straight into my head.

"Everything doctors do with the brain is 90 percent trial and error."

The results are the closest thing yet to PathoGlyph’s actual goal: directly embodying another human being, not just an artist’s rendering of one. Its messy tangle of fear, anger, relief, and anguish lays bare Henry’s simple sad-to-happy arc as ham-fisted kitsch. It’s hard to tell how close they are to the subject’s exact response, but it does feel too complicated to be faked.

It’s also intensely disturbing. PathoGlyph isn’t just flirting with the disaster porn genre, it’s creating things that can only exist if artists invite disaster upon themselves — if they undergo trauma as viscerally as possible for our edification. While White won’t confirm an exact number, he says the subject of Syria wasn’t the only volunteer. On a shallow level, it’s easy to say that this is a way to expose the truth of violence we won’t see ourselves. But how close do we have to be to someone to feel their pain? Is simply replicating pain a moral good? And should perfect imitation be the goal of art?

It’s possible that the Wavelength makes me uncomfortable simply because it suggests a future where the artist (or journalist) is obsolete. We praise well-written novels and well-composed songs because they’re capable of evoking a powerful response. But the Wavelength’s promise is that this mere content is irrelevant, because heartstrings can be plucked as directly as the strings on a guitar.

PathoGlyph Wavelength

If we don’t think of the goal of art as realism, though, empathic immersion is an exciting — if still frightening — medium in itself. Instead of connecting us to humanity, the Wavelength could give us genuinely alien emotions, the kind of surrealism first-wave VR developers promised us in the 1990s. Could the right Wavelength track make us want to cuddle spiders, or recoil in disgust at a fluffy baby animal? Could we feel in entirely new ways?

White seems hesitant. "To me, virtual reality is about storytelling. It’s about connecting to other people, and provoking real emotions, not creating gimmicks," he says. While PathoGlyph has no current plans for release, White says he’s in talks with "major VR filmmakers" to integrate Wavelength tracks or collaborate on new work. We could even, he hints, see something at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, already a hotbed for VR art.

"Someday I want people to be watching Her and not be able to tell if Theodore is sad, or they’re sad. Because there’s no ‘them,’ because they are the character. And to do that, we have to tap into a fundamental human experience," says White, as I surreptitiously try to make sure my mascara hasn’t smudged. "When we’re doing something this big, I want people to trust us with their — I guess you could say, with their soul."

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