When Cameron Kostopoulos’ family learned he is gay, they essentially cut ties. That painful journey made him wonder if he could use his skills as a filmmaker to create an experience that would help people understand what it feels like to be someone with a different identity. Using the Unreal Engine gaming engine and special hardware for body, face, eye and hand tracking, he created the award-winning Body of Mine VR immersive experience.
Matt Carmichael: Explain how Body of Mine works.
Cameron Kostopoulos: It’s a real-time game powered through Unreal Engine hardware. We're using a lot of cutting-edge tracking technology to combine body, face, eye and hand tracking with a headset, which gets you immersed in the world. It’s also collecting your eye tracking data so that you can look at yourself in a mirror and see yourself blink and see your eyes move around. You can step in and see your hands move. And then for the body, we're using five trackers along with sensors that detect what your body is doing so that you can be fully immersed into these bodies of different genders.
Carmichael: Would this work as well in film?
Kostopoulos: No. This really is the only medium for the story because with film you are watching someone experience something. For this story, we wanted to explore the interactions we have with our own [bodies] and the way we relate to our own bodies, and through that, make the connection to these transgender stories because it's about the way we exist in our skin, the way we relate to our bodies. It’s a very physical experience that can only be done in a fully immersive way.
Carmichael: I met you when you were showing this at SXSW. How did people react?
Kostopoulos: People had a really strong emotional reaction at SXSW. There were a lot of tears, there were a lot of hugs because I think you're not used to looking down and seeing different tattoos or seeing breasts where you don't have them or seeing different color skin. When that happens, your mind immediately is taken somewhere else because that's such a visceral reaction. You're able to connect with stories on a very intimate level that we can empathize with people. But that’s not enough. We need to understand or at least try to understand those experiences if we want to fully empathize and fully understand.
Carmichael: How does this build empathy?
Kostopoulos: I believe that VR can be used as a tool for powerful storytelling and for generating not just empathy, but action and understanding. We wanted to explore embodiment in VR because for one, there are not a lot of VR experiences of this kind, period.
Carmichael: How do you see younger people using immersive technology in the future?
Kostopoulos: I could see tools where someone can use an AI to try out different pronouns or different names and connect with other trans girls who have been in your shoes [so you] know that you're not alone. I know how isolated an experience that can be when you are trying to pretend that you’re someone you're not. You're not really seeking support because you don't even know where to look, or you don't even know how to begin that conversation with yourself. To build experiences that allow you to explore your body and your sexuality and your identity in a safe, intimate, private space within a headset could be really powerful and therapeutic for a lot of people.
“Seeing yourself in the body of a gender you don't identify with makes you wonder ‘What if I was born with a different gender?’ That puts you in a more accepting state of mind to hear these stories.”
Carmichael: Your SXSW audience was self-selecting. Do you think there’s a broad audience for these ideas?
Kostopoulos: People had such a strong reaction to it is because they were realizing that through these trans stories, they were really seeing a lot of themselves in the way that they perceive their own gender. Because gender is not black and white, even for cis people. You have more feminine qualities, you have more masculine qualities, and most of us have been growing up in an environment where we're taught that there's more of a binary.
Carmichael: You grew up in a conservative area of Texas. Could you take this to your neighborhood block party?
Kostopoulos: Oh, my goodness, it would not go. There would be some people who love it and there would be some people who are so glad they saw it, including a lot of the people that we interviewed from Texas. There’d be even more people who are really unhappy, some scary people who would probably give us threats. But personally, that is what makes me a little bit excited about it. It’s important to make people uncomfortable and have this conversation because it's the only way we move forward.
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