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Professor to Design ‘Empathy Mirror’ to Foster Understanding Among People with Different Perspectives

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine have awarded $100,000 to a team of engineers and designers, led by Cockrell School of Engineering professor Brian Korgel, to develop an “empathy mirror” aimed at fostering understanding among people with different points of view and experiences.

With a grant from the National Academies Keck Futures Initiative, Korgel, a professor in UT Austin’s McKetta Department of Chemical Engineering, will lead a multidisciplinary team to design and develop a prototype device that can immerse a participant in the mind and body of another individual — using a combination of touch, smell, sight and sound — to create an experience that counteracts the “echo chamber” effect, or feelings of isolation, linked to most digital technologies.

“In today’s society, you can see a polarization of views, but people are not having discussions about their beliefs. We want to use technology interfaces to enable an observer to literally feel what it feels like to be in someone else’s shoes,” Korgel said. “So we came up with an idea to use state-of-the-art technologies, sensors and screens to create what we are calling an empathy mirror.”

The goal of the interdisciplinary project is to use technology to bring people together for an entertaining and educational experience that can lead to positive, productive discussions and debates.

The Keck Futures Initiative awarded a total of 11 grants to support interdisciplinary projects that bring together art and science, engineering and medicine. These types of collaborations were the subject of the Keck Futures Initiative’s 2015 conference, Art and Science, Engineering, and Medicine Frontier Collaborations: Ideation, Translation and Realization. The competitive seed grants the academies awarded aim to break down the barriers between academic fields and fill a critical gap in funding for bold new ideas.

Korgel’s collaborators include Rieko Yajima, Stanford University; Youngmoo Kim, Drexel University; Jeffrey Blum, McGill University; and Rachel Field, Vapor Communications.

The funding will support the development of the mirror over the next year. The researchers believe the mirror could be useful in portraying a range of scenarios, including enabling participants to feel what it is like to be a refugee from a war-torn country or a single parent who makes minimum wage.

While the design is still being developed, the team is considering adding a booth in which an observer will sit and look into a mirror and see his or her image in the reflection — the image would voice beliefs that are contrary to the observer’s own views. Once a prototype of the empathy mirror is built, the team hopes to raise money to complete a traveling exhibition.

Korgel, who has an interest in the intersection of art, design, science and engineering, has spent the past few years on projects called Rapid Design Pivot and Omnibus Filing, working with James Sham, a visiting artist at UT Austin. Together they brought together artists, scientists and engineers to create innovations with the potential for commercialization. Omnibus Filing will be exhibited early next year at the Visual Arts Center at UT Austin.

“I think integrating art and design at the beginning of a project can speed up the innovation process and advance research,” Korgel said. “I hope projects like Rapid Design Pivot, Omnibus Filing and the empathy mirror will encourage even more of these types of collaborations across UT Austin.”