Thursday, January 18, 2018

Flying Free of the Deathbed, with Technological Help

Today marks the third year since the death of my father, Kirkland Gable. (Some memories of him here.) I now better understand than I once did why the ancient Confucian tradition recommends three years' mourning for one's parents. To my surprise -- since we had only been in contact about once a month before his death -- I find myself almost every day still thinking about his absence.

My father spent the final twenty years of his life severely disabled and often bedridden. Among his many maladies, he suffered from severe Chronic Regional Pain Syndrome in one foot, which meant that he was in constant pain which would be seriously aggravated, sometimes for weeks, from even mild exertion, such as ten minutes' walking, or jostling the foot too much during sleep or while in a wheelchair. It was, I believe, ultimately the CRiPS that killed him, through the side effects of long-term narcotics and the bodily harm from spending years almost immobile in bed.

I have often wished, during his final years, that we could have freed him from his horrible bed. I've tried this in imagination many times, attempting to write it up as a science fiction story. But the story never seems to come out right. Today, instead of the story I can't yet write, let me discuss a technological innovation that I think would be interesting for people who are bedridden.

The core idea is simple and would be easy to implement. Probably, it is already being implemented somewhere. (Links and info welcome!) Equip an able-bodied volunteer, the "Host", with a camera above each eye and a microphone by each ear. Equip the bedridden person, the "Rider", with VR gear that immersively presents these audiovisual stimuli to Rider's eyes and ears. Also equip Rider with a microphone to speak with Host, directly into Host's ear. Now send Host on a trip. During this trip, let Host be guided mainly by Rider's expressed desires, going where Rider wants, looking where Rider wants to look, stopping and listening where Rider wants to stop and listen. Unlike VR tours as they currently exist, Host can interact with and alter the environment in real time. Rider could have Host lift a flower and turn it in their hands, then cast the flower into a stream and watch it drift away. Host could purchase goods or services on Rider's behalf. Host could conduct a conversation through Rider, interacting with locals by having Rider speak Host's words verbatim.

(In the psychology literature, speaking the words of another immediately upon hearing them quietly projected into your ear is called "conversational shadowing". In his career as a psychologist, my father was involved in some early shadowing studies. Shadowing can be surprisingly fast and smooth once one gets the hang of it, with utterances almost simultaneous as the host half-anticipates the rider's next word.)

A more ambitious Host-Rider setup would employ VR gloves. As I imagine it, Rider and Host wear matching gloves. These gloves are synchronized to move in exactly the same way -- of course with quick escape overrides and perhaps with Rider's motions damped down to prevent overextension or bumping into unseen obstacles near the bed. This would take some excellent technological chicanery with good motion tracking (Nintendo Wii, improved) and some way of restricting or guiding the movements of the gloves on each end, perhaps using magnetic fields, so that when Rider wants to move a hand on vector W and Host wants to move it on vector V, the result is some compromise vector (barring safety override). An intuitive collaboration would be necessary between Rider and Host, and gentle, predictable movements. With practice, I think it would not be unfeasible, at least in safe and simple environments, for Rider to feel as though it is almost their hands that are moving in the virtual environment. This could be further enhanced with tactile feedback -- that is, if pressure sensors in Host's gloves communicated with actuators in Rider's gloves that exerted corresponding pressures in corresponding locations.

(Here, compare the Rubber Hand or Body Transfer Illusion. I have been a participant in some body transfer experiments and have informally conducted others at home with friends and family. It is amazing how flexible one's sense of one's bodily shape, position, and boundaries can be, given suggestive feedback!)

A final, expensive, risky, and much more conjectural step here -- probably a step too far -- would involve equipping Host and Rider with helmets with brain-imaging technology and the capacity for Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (or some other ability to directly stimulate or suppress brain activity). For example, for a fuller tactile experience, activity in Host's primary somatosensory cortex could be tracked, and a vague, faint echo of it could be stimulated in matching areas in Rider's cortex. One wouldn't want too much synchrony, and anyhow brains differ somewhat in their organizational structure, even in fairly similarly structured regions like somatosensory cortex. Also, of course, you wouldn't want much motor signal going down through efferent nerves into the Rider's body, making Rider move around in the bed. Also, current brain imaging technologies, even if we imagine portable versions of them, wouldn't be spatiotemporally sharp enough to do a proper job of it. But still, a dim, vague signal might be very suggestive for an otherwise well-harmonized, collaborative Host and Rider, in a rich environmental context with very clear cues and expectations.

I won't conjecture about, say, attempting to match activity in emotional regions or associative cortex. Conjecturing about a high degree of match between different people's brains is both neurophysiologically unrealistic and possibly too threatening to the autonomy of Host and Rider -- though of course there are dark, interesting, far-future science-fictional possibilities there.

Let's bracket, then, this last conjectural step with brain imaging and brain stimulation, and focus just on the VR experience with audiovisual input, shadowing, and matching-motion gloves -- all in a positive, harmonious, and non-exploitative relationship with a host. I think that would be pretty cool, and near- to medium-term technologically achievable. If it plays out right, it might give some bedridden people a chance to explore the world beyond their bed in a much more vivid, engaging, and interactive manner.

My father was both a psychologist and an inventor. In 1995, when he was first diagnosed with cancer, he had been wanting to go to Hong Kong, and he had to cancel the trip to attempt a bone marrow transplant. He never did make it to Hong Kong. I wish I could bring him back, build some of this technology with him, then take him there.

[image source]

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