#511: Neurospeculative Afrofeminism: Building the Future You Want to Live Into

#511: Neurospeculative Afrofeminism: Building the Future You Want to Live Into

Hyphen Labs is a immersive design collective made up of women of color, and they had a sci-fi VR experience at Sundance this year called Neurospeculative Afrofeminism. Their VR experience features black women as some of the pioneers of brain optimization, and you get to experience a futuristic neurocosmotology lab where you can receive transcranial stimulation. As you get this neuroplasticity treatment, you’re transported into a magical world that features speculative products that feature women of color as the center of the design narrative.

I had a chance to catch up with Carmen Aguilar y Wedge, Ashley Baccus-Clark, Ece Tankal, and Nitzan Bartov at Sundance where we talked about the process of writing a love letter to black women and creating an experience that helps them live into a future that they want to help create. Wedge cites the quote “You can’t be what you can’t see,” which provided inspiration for them to create an experience where they could create virtual characters within a context of technological innovation in order to directly stimulate neural pathways and re-wire their own brains using the principles of synaptic plasticity.


It’s an open question as to whether or not it will ever be technically possible to do Matrix-style with neural injection where you’re essentially directly hacking the senses. At the MIT Technology conference, I had a chance to see Kernel founder Bryan Johnson who was talking about implanting a chip into the brains of patients with Alzheimer’s or Dementia in order to see if it’s possible to use computer-generated neural coding to help improve the memory of these subjects. MIT graduate student Seongjun Park was able to deliver a “combination of optical, electrical, and chemical signals back and forth into the brain” by using tiny fibers. This Three-in-one design claims to enable both genetic, chemical, optical, and electrical inputs and outputs to the brain.

It’s possible that directly interfacing with the brain with computers will be possible and completely mainstream in 50 years. It’s starting with treating brain diseases, will likely move onto cognitive enhancement, and perhaps eventually move to further brain optimizations. But it’s also unknown whether or not direct neural interfaces will prove to be better than using our existing perceptual system inputs that are able to correlate our subjective experiences and emotions into the context of the processing of data inputs. The principles of embodied cognition indicates that the process of memory creation involves the entire body as well as your contextual environment. There also may be a layer of consciousness and meaning making that is a holistic system that proves difficult to directly bypass in order to increase the bandwidth of input into the brain. This is still mostly within the realm of speculative sci-fi, but these recent news items that are paving the pathway toward the type of future that Hyphen Labs is painting within their Neurospeculative Afrofeminism VR experience.

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Rough Transcript

[00:00:05.452] Kent Bye: The Voices of VR Podcast. My name is Kent Bye and welcome to The Voices of VR Podcast. So one of the killer apps of virtual reality that I see is this concept of neuroplasticity. And that's the idea that you can go into VR and you can blaze new neural pathways that open up new capabilities in your mind that would be impossible without the VR medium. I think James Blaha's story with Vivid Vision, where he's been able to use VR to be able to essentially cure his lazy eye. He's been able to rewire his brain to be able to use a part of his muscle that was perfectly fine. It just needed to have this neurorehabilitation to be able to use his eyes to actually see in stereoscopic 3D. So this idea of neuroplasticity and neurocognitive interfaces and neural injection is something that I think is going to be huge within the future of VR. It's something that's been explored in science fiction like The Matrix when Neo is sitting there and he has a neural injection and he's able to essentially learn how to do kung fu just by neural code. And when I was at the MIT Tech Conference last week, I was able to see Brian Johnson of KernelOS, where he's actually trying to create these brain chips in your brain to be able to do neural encoding. So essentially coding for the brain to be able to do these direct neural injections. He's starting with Alzheimer's and dementia, but eventually he's going to move into cognitive enhancement. So at Sundance this year, there was a project by a group of women of color called Hyphen Labs, and their project was called Neurospeculative Afrofeminism. And it was like this speculative sci-fi experience that had black women as some of the pioneers of brain optimization. So you're in this neurocosmetology lab getting these transcranial stimulations, and they created an entire simulation that is essentially like a love letter to their younger selves so that they can paint a future that they want to start to actually live into. So, I'll be talking to four of the co-founders of Hyphen Labs with Carmen Aguilar Ibege, Ashley Bacos-Clark, Ece Tenkal, and Nitin Bartov on today's episode of the Voices of VR podcast. But first, a quick word from our sponsor. Today's episode is brought to you by the Voices of VR Patreon campaign. The Voices of VR podcast started as a passion project, but now it's my livelihood. And so if you're enjoying the content on the Voices of VR podcast, then consider it a service to you and the wider community and send me a tip. Just a couple of dollars a month makes a huge difference, especially if everybody contributes. So donate today at patreon.com slash Voices of VR. So this interview with Carmen, Ashley, Ece, and Nitzen happened at the Sundance Film Festival, which was happening in Park City, Utah, from January 19th to 29th, 2017. So with that, let's go ahead and dive right in. Hi, my name is Carmen Aguilar-Iwej, and I'm a co-founder of Hyphen Labs, working on a VR project at Sundance. My name is Ashley Bacchus-Clark, and I am also a member of Hyphen Labs, sort of thinking about speculative neuroscience and research experience design.

[00:03:27.509] Hyphen Labs: My name is Edith Ankel, and I'm also a co-founder of Hyphen Labs. My name is Titsan Bartov. I am an architect and game designer developing this experience in Sundance.

[00:03:39.093] Kent Bye: Great. So maybe you could start with how this project came about and what you were trying to really communicate. Well, this project came about because Carmen and I were living together over the summer, and it was a really emotionally impactful summer for us. We were living in New York City, and just hearing news story after news story about unarmed black men being murdered, so we decided that we needed to have a day of self-care, and we wanted to go to Storm King. It was really hot, very humid, and we wanted to protect our skin so I put on sunblock and it discolored me because most of the sunblock on the market isn't formulated for people that have high melanin content in their skin. So we were like, this isn't the first instance where we've either had to adapt or modify products to fit us that don't consider women of color, people of color at the center of the design narrative. So if we were to disrupt this landscape and to create products for us and by us, this is what they would look like. So this is how we came up with our physical products, which we also have mirrored inside of our VR experience. So we're here at Sundance, and I had a chance to go through the experience. there was a physical installation. So I'm walking into this physical salon that he had constructed as part of the exhibition. But then I go into a virtual experience of kind of like in the future, this is what I would be going into. And so maybe you could paint the picture as to what I was walking into. So we started with the products and we saw that there was this, you know, problem that products aren't designed with humans' needs and experiences in mind. And so in the VR experience, in the neurocosmetology lab, We were looking at one particular product and it's transcranial stimulation and we wanted to reimagine the technology to fit women with textured hair and have a simulation of that real therapy or technology that exists in our VR experience. So when you go into the neurocosmetology lab and you're invited to sit in the salon chairs, you can dive into a virtual space that is where we're projecting black women as the pioneers of brain optimization. And through that space, you go into new worlds where you see multidimensional representations of black women, where you are free to be and create the content that you want to see. There was a kind of like this, uh, neuroplasticity dimension where, you know, there seemed to be the thing that was really striking to me was that there was an entire world that you had created that felt like it was very well thought out, just looking at the products, all the descriptions. So maybe you could describe to me what the process was that I was going through in the virtual experience and how you were trying to actually stimulate that futuristic speculative science fiction, neural cognitive transmutations that you were doing. So we wanted this experience to be a feel-good experience. And we also wanted to simulate what's going to be the outcome of that treatment that you'll be seeing. And as an architect, it's very interesting to use this tool because you can create your own physics, your own system when you're building the world. So we wanted to, at the end of the experience where you meet these three personas, We wanted that experience to be an opening mind experience where you can use this tool to create whatever you want and this could be like an imagination opening experience. And as an architect that's very interesting for me because here in this world we're attached to this physics system here but there we can create some other dimensions. Well, what's really interesting is, so we're an international group of women, and we all started talking about this, like, Afrofuturism, and we all grew up in the 80s and 90s, and Ashley and I are from the United States, and Ece, who's from Turkey, and Nitzu's from Israel, and Ece was also growing up with the same musical influences and cultural, like, MTV, and all of these things except for she didn't have the racial tensions that we experienced here in America. So this new world that you go into is a very unique space that references all of the cultural media that we've experienced in black television and music through the lens of somebody who did not experience the same racial tensions. So it's really a love letter to black women and their own cathedral. It's very fitting. I see Michelle Obama singing this piece on her last day as the First Lady of the United States. And it's like, we have grown up with this woman who is the purveyor of poise and just intellectual ability and capacity. And this is not only for her, but for all of the black women who are doing the work and have inspired us. And this is something that we created for them, as well as for ourselves. In terms of creating the VR experience, what were some of the things that you were trying to really focus on and bring out?

[00:08:53.235] Hyphen Labs: I think one theme that we kept getting back to is the embodiment and what's our relationship to that. We're basically placing the visitor inside a body of a young black female. What would that be like and how can we do that in a respectful way? How can we defer ourselves from the way women are presented in the video game landscape, for instance? And what's the type of interaction that we can allow that character to have? How can it experience a full story through sitting 360 experience? How can the elements in the space move around that? And how can they tell parts of the story? There is a really, really, like, huge chunk of this world that is not in the VR experience, but you keep getting clues of it. The chandelier moves above your head. You see Brooks is the salon, Octavia Electrode's developer and inventor, and her control boards. There are the products there. There are a lot of cues, maybe for future adventures, or maybe for you to want to further know this world. And we're just trying to spatially like make a comment for all of this.

[00:10:00.726] Kent Bye: Yeah, that was the thing that was really striking to me was to see some of these futuristic products, but that could actually be produced today. And one of the things that really stuck out to me was this facial recognition hacking. scarf that would throw the scent off of these facial recognition algorithms and to give people maybe a little bit more privacy. Maybe you could talk a bit about, you know, what was the driving motivation for some of these products that you were trying to create within this future? So we found that we were using Snapchat and Ece has eyes often all over her and we had Snapchat open and the app kept recognizing the eyes as the face and not recognizing her face. And these products are really highlighting ideas of privacy and identity and security and perception. So we were like, well, I don't want to be captured by all of these facial recognition algorithms. How can I camouflage myself? So we got in touch with the privacy artist, Adam Harvey, and he'd also been doing research on this and was looking for the right way and the right platform to distribute this kind of information and these kind of ideas. So we collaborated and came up with this camouflaging data obfuscating scarf that hopefully If a thousand people wear it to the Trump protest, we can throw off and break the entire camera surveillance system. Yeah. And there's also just a lot of really interesting kind of like neuroscience that you have built in as well. I mean, I think perhaps the killer application of virtual reality is this neuroplasticity principle. We're able to actually start to rewire our brains and it feels like that's kind of written in and built in, into this future where you're having almost like this matrix, like direct neural injection, let's say, but maybe you could talk a bit more about the neuroscience and what you were trying to infuse within this sci-fi medium. Absolutely. I mean, neuroscience and our brain in general is the last frontier of exploration. You know, we know more about deep space, the deep ocean, the terrestrial world than we do of our own brain. And we really wanted to look towards that and see if you were constantly exposed to these narratives of not being enough, what is that doing to you on a neurocognitive level? So that was the ground basis of the experiment and also just like what does it mean to rewire your brain and sort of directly stimulate neuronal pathways and how you can have practice and experience rewire how you're engaging not only through content but also through a learning process. So we've been doing a lot of deep work with ourselves, you know, it takes a lot of time and effort to make a virtual reality experience. So we've been doing this sort of synaptic plasticity experiment on ourselves, but also doubly highlighting that in the narrative and projecting a black woman as a person who is doing this neural research. And we want to not only partner with people who are looking at neuroscience in a more accessible way, getting the general public to be excited about it, especially in VR, with presence and sort of embodiment and seeing how, if you are immersed in this content, is it actually having an impact on the way that your brain is firing these pathways? And if so, can we make a quantifiable case for a saying? We have the metrics to show that this is good stuff. You know, how do we continue to do work like this? I mean, we want to make that scientifically viable. Yeah, because you're essentially creating a future that you want to see, that you want to live into. And so you mentioned before we started that you're trying to write a love letter to your younger selves to be able to paint a future that you want to have those virtual mentors to be working towards. Maybe you could kind of expand on that a little bit. Yeah, I think it was Marian Endelman who said, you can't be what you can't see. And we at Hyphen Labs have come together as women to inspire Generation Z to say like, hey, we're here and we're doing this and we're going to create new narratives and new content where you are at the center of the narrative. and we really want to bring this to the community because VR is a beautiful undiluted medium where you have somebody's attention and you can really have them see the story without advertisement, without like pop-up messages. So we wanted to create something that could get the next generation of content creators excited about putting themselves into this digital landscape, as well as the product and physical landscape, as well as the scientific landscape. We want to have the next Nobel Prize winner be a person of African descent. So in terms of the actual virtual reality experience, there seem to be these two phases where you're in this futuristic salon, which I kind of felt like that I was getting a haircut or something, but it was a neural upgrade in some ways. But then once I get transported into this other realm, it's an experience that I've never had before. And so maybe you could talk about architecting that space and what you were trying to do in terms of give a type of experience that was beyond what is even possible in reality.

[00:15:23.866] Hyphen Labs: You start our experience walking into an installation, and then when you're starting the virtual experience, you're sitting in a space that's very similar, both by lighting, materials, the same scale almost. And you're really, you're still grounded in your physical space. And then where you step inside the vision space or dream space or like everyone calls it the way they feel, you're really detached of your body. You have no limitations. You just like look around and explore stuff, appear in different scales. They either remind you of something you know, but they're very different and they're recontextualized for that. dream world within your mind almost, like forget your body. I think Ece can also talk more about the materiality of that world and how we try to make that very different from the first like grounded space.

[00:16:14.362] Kent Bye: Well, we wanted to actually turn the world that we're living in upside down. So we have these mountains of water where they have these hills that you won't get to see in actual world. And we also wanted to play with the scale of the things while you are going through this big city. But then you get to see little objects that you can see in the physical installation and both in the virtual hair salon. So we wanted to make people feel that there's no limitation to what they can imagine. It feels like this world is a vast world and you'd have many, many different other stories. What's the plans in the future to investigate other products? And specifically, I know there was a lot of things that were on the wall that were talked about, had very detailed descriptions that seemed feasible to have this near science fiction applications, but what's the plans moving forward to expand on this or to get it out there? I mean, we would love to create more products that sort of speak to this narrative and also iterate on the VR experience in this form. And also, Brooks has a lot of stuff up her sleeves. So she's going to be creating more products that speak to the sort of biophysical impact of innovation. Also picturing women not as princesses or queens but more badass action figures that might turn into a comic book story where we can really get youth's attention of teenagers and all the youngsters that we want to reach out to. That might be a very fun project. Yeah, I think that this world that we're building, this is our first VR project and our first project together and we've had such a wonderful time collaborating and the creative process has been really exciting. I can't tell you, I've stayed up all night and gotten up every morning so excited to work on this because it's really something that I think we're all very passionate about. So this story has so many more chapters and so many more layers. And I think that getting other people to think about the way that we're approaching this creative process, as well as what their experiences and their needs are, and then hopefully providing a platform for them also to distribute their ideas. So definitely developing the products and seeing who would want to use them, or at least inspiring people to think in that way, as well as getting the VR optimized for mobile so we can really distribute this because we're making an NSAF movement. Yeah. One of the things that was really striking to me was to actually feel that embodiment of that character, the young black woman who's in that seat and as that protagonist as well. And I'm just curious to hear from each of you, like, you know, as you go forward and you've created this experience, so you could give that to yourself and potentially other people, but what are the other types of things that you each want to experience in VR?

[00:19:20.093] Hyphen Labs: Well, I'm actually working on a soap opera video game for VR that includes you interacting with an AI, Eliza style AI. So yeah, I want to see more weird forms of narratives. I want to see like existing genres becoming adopted to VR and becoming weird and open and funny.

[00:19:40.977] Kent Bye: Actually, when I see the projects that have been envisioned for us to live outside this Earth, for example on Mars or on Moon, I see that it's really attached to the planet that we live in now and I really don't want to see another planet turn into the Earth again. So I think VR is a really nice tool to start imagining not only how to build habitats on other planets, but also how we can create these other types of systems when creating cities or urban environments. And I think I would like to see more of that experiments in VR. Two things, I want to see the black mythology, you know, be imagined in VR and continue to iterate on that because it's such a rich history. And I also want to experience what we're creating, something that allows us to go into flow states and, you know, hyper focus and get into this deep learning. state that we're going to need to sort of combat all of this extraneous noise that we find ourselves in through social media, through constant interruptions. Like I want to get back to a center where we can focus in on a task and be able to give all of our attention to that. So having that be done through an embodied experience. I am really excited to see very beautiful advancements in technology, but I'm also really hoping that VR can be a tool that augments the human experience and really can not just say for one person, oh, now I understand what you're feeling, but actually move you and have a tangible and physical connection to your space. so that we who experience the VR can be moved by it and our lives can actually adjust and change because of the experiences that we've had through this platform in this medium. Great. And finally, what do you each see as the ultimate potential of virtual reality and what it might be able to enable?

[00:21:43.450] Hyphen Labs: I think it's a great medium to allow people with disabilities to have broader experiences, to explore, to be abled through that embodied experiences and have tailored interactions that would allow them to have like full agency in VR. And that's like one path that I think can really help humanity and VR as a valid technology that's more than a form of entertainment.

[00:22:14.556] Kent Bye: I see a VR as a very, very powerful educational tool. When I compare it to the studies I had when I was a kid, I was always more stimulated by the visual cues that I was exposed to. So I always imagine this tool being distributed in the schools where they can be more stimulated by the visual things in geography or mathematics and everything, where they can have a more stamps in their brains, let's say, as memories. I imagine VR giving agency back to people who are getting older, who are, you know, we're aging population and if people who are getting older and losing memories are able to experience something that they've lost in a very tangible way through virtual reality, If people with Alzheimer's are able to get a repetition of experiences and memories and things like that, can that have an impact or subvert the way that this disease is taking hold of their brain? So I'm excited for a more therapeutic aspect of VR. I really like reality, but virtual reality and I really don't know what the potential of virtual reality is. And I agree, it's a democratic medium with broad representation from genders to age to color. One thing I really do appreciate about it, and as we've been developing the VR, we've been able to try something and see if it works. And if it doesn't work, try something else. And you're able to program the behaviors and really customize it to be the experience that you want it to be. And as all art and design, it never ends, but you can get to a place that can actually impact you. because a computer doesn't know whether you're a man or a woman or how old you are, you can feel safe developing for it. Awesome. Thank you. Thank you so much for having us. Thank you. So that was Carmen Aguilar-Ewedge, Ashley Barkas-Clark, Ece Tenkal, and Netzei Bartov from Hyphen Labs, and they were working on neurospeculative afrofeminism. So I have a number of different takeaways about this interview is that first of all, this whole idea of neuroplasticity and cognitive enhancement, I think is actually going to be a really huge thing in the future of VR, both from having virtual reality experiences, but eventually having these direct neural injections. This is something that feels like a little bit of a sci-fi, you know, being able to have these direct interfaces with the brain, but At the MIT Tech Conference, I saw Brian Johnson give a whole talk about his company that he started called KernelOS, where they're trying to actually do these neural injections. And they're starting with being able to solve the issue of Alzheimer's and dementia, but eventually they'll be able to use it for cognitive enhancement and be able to have these types of experiences that are trying to expand your mind in different ways. MIT also just announced this past week, Seong Jung Park is a MIT graduate student. He's working on these hair-like fiber optics that are able to have these direct interface with the brain. So it's combining optical, electrical, and chemical signals back and forth in and out of the brain. So these tiny fibers are opening up these new windows into the brain and allow this direct interface with the mind. So this idea that they're talking about, this neuro-speculative alpha-ferminism, is something that is on the horizon. It's going to happen, I think, in the next 50 years. 50 years from now, I think this is going to be a common thing. The thing that I really find fascinating about what Hyphen Labs is doing is that there's this quote that Carmen says, which is that, you can't be what you can't see. And that idea is actually really fascinating. You can't be what you can't see. So why not go into virtual reality and to create this whole entire future that you want to have as a role model? It's like your future self calling back to you, being able to show you what's even possible. You know, as you walk into this virtual reality installation at Sundance, you're getting primed with, OK, this feels like this is walking into a salon. And then you go into the VR experience. You walk into this neurocosmetology lab and you're getting this transcranial stimulation within this virtual reality experience. And then you then go into this transcendental exploration as to, you know, showing you all these different things that are possible. And I think it's worth just kind of going through the experience for you to have your own experience of what that is like. But you can just kind of imagine what they're doing here is that they're taking these products that they want to see in the world. So one of the examples is like this handkerchief that is trying to throw off the facial recognition algorithm. So you're wearing these scarves and it's giving you a certain amount of privacy within these public spaces with all these facial recognition algorithms everywhere. And so it's just like this idea of creating products that you want to see in the world, but creating a culture around those products and showing these products being used. So before they're even actually out and actually dispersed everywhere in the world, you're able to have a virtual reality experience of these products. And then it is creating this desire of like, oh, actually, I would love to actually have that. Why not actually make it into the real world? So it's just one of these examples of having VR as this, you know, speculative sci-fi future, but you're able to create the future that you want to live into. So it's like this platform to be able to distribute these speculative products that are just mostly ideas, but you're able to actually create a direct experience of those ideas. And if they're strong enough, then there could be the desire to somehow crowdfunded or to, in some distributed fashion, make it happen. So I think it's just really powerful to have these women of color that are coming together and they're having these experiences in their life where they're told that they're not enough. And so they're creating these experiences, having these role models being played out within this experience so that they can start to rewire their brain and directly stimulate these neural pathways and doing their own experiments of neuroplasticity, of being able to feel what it's like to actually be in a culture and environment where that's happening. So I think that the kernel of the ideas of what's possible with this vision of being able to use VR as this speculative sci-fi of creating the vision of the future that we want to live into, I think it's a super powerful and potent idea and just really enjoyed the Hyphen Labs experience of neuro-speculative afro-feminism. especially with being able to actually read more about all of these different products that they had created. You know, that was the other thing that I was really just struck by is that the world building that was going behind these worlds that they had created had a lot of really deep thought that went into it. And they had like very lengthy descriptions about each of these products that weren't necessarily even featured within the VR experience, but they're just creating this rich world of being able to create more and more experiences that really take one of these products and kind of expand out what was possible if that product was actually existing in the real world. So that's all that I have for today. I just wanted to thank you for joining me on the Voices of VR podcast. And if you enjoyed the podcast, please do spread the word, tell your friends, and become a donor. Just a few dollars a month makes a huge difference. So donate today at patreon.com slash Voices of VR. Thanks for listening.

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