Technology that creates “perceptual intimacy” might pull us closer together

[From The Milwaukee Wisconsin Journal Sentinel]

Philip Chard | Out of My Mind

New machines might pull us closer together

June 27, 2011

When frustrated with or puzzled about another person, we sometimes say, “I wish I could get inside his head.”

Intuitively, we recognize how tough it is to truly understand how another person perceives the world. Even heartfelt conversations between caring people cannot entirely bridge this interpersonal gap.

What, if anything, can?

Well, with emerging advances in communication technology, you and others of your choosing may soon be able to narrow this relational chasm in a way that meaningful dialogue alone cannot. At first, these new gizmos will be clunky, but they soon will create a way to relate to one another with what I call “perceptual intimacy” – truly grasping another person’s way of seeing and being in the world.

It will probably be a device you wear that allows another person with a comparable gadget to share, at a sensory level, what you are experiencing – meaning it will be as close as that individual can get to seeing through your eyes and hearing with your ears. This apparatus will stream video and audio over high-speed wireless networks. At first, this technology will resemble plain old video, like one sees on iReport on CNN, but soon it will more richly and fully convey how we actually experience the world around us.

Eventually, further advances in miniaturization and machine-to-brain interfaces will allow you to be more and more inside another person’s sensory and even emotional experience as it is happening. Employing newer iterations of virtual reality “helmets” already in use, you may be able to deeply enter another person’s perceptual and sensory experience much as it is happening in his or her consciousness.

Once fully developed, this technology will be valuable in many venues – education, training, personal development and psychotherapy, to name a few.

Consider, for example, what marriage counseling might be like if both parties could directly experience how they come across to each other, not just conceptually but through actual perceptual input within a virtual reality-like environment.

Now, as many have lamented, e-communication is messing with millions of years of hominid evolution crafted from face-to-face communication. Today’s devices (smartphones, computers, tablets, etc.) have revolutionized how we interact, and not always for the better. There is evidence they have dehumanized our relationships, creating interactions that are more like machine-to-machine than person-to-person.

However, if the technology evolves in the way futurists predict, this trend may reverse. The whole concept of distance communication will be altered radically, and our sense of what it means to “be with” someone will transform in paradigm-shifting ways.

As it becomes possible to truly “get inside” another person’s experience of the world, the potential effects on our capacity to understand and empathize with, as well as learn from, each other could be game-changing. Perhaps what now seems to be pushing us further apart (e-communication) may soon begin bringing us closer together again.

Philip Chard is a psychotherapist, author and trainer. Names used in this column are changed to honor client confidentiality. Email him at or visit


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