To Liam Jarvis’s grandmother, movement was everything. She was a personal trainer for Keep Fit, a U.K.-based fitness program that made dance choreography the centerpiece of its classes. But when Jarvis was still young, his grandmother had to stop teaching. Parkinson’s made it impossible for her to grip objects in her right hand.
Ten months ago, Jarvis, a theater instructor, started exploring a unique experiment in radical empathy. What if technology could allow anyone to experience what Parkinson’s disease might feel like?
Together with his theater company, Analogue, Jarvis designed a performance called Transports. But unlike traditional theater, which might take place on a stage or in a black box setting, all Transports requires is a bag of props, a screen, and a glove with a Raspberry Pi controller and spinning counterweight–a built-in tremor.
When participants sit down to experience Transports, they slip on the glove and are introduced to a new reality. Suddenly, participants are inhabiting the body of Andrew, a man in his 30’s who has early-onset Parkinson’s. Andrew’s at his best friend’s wedding reception, and he’s slated to make a toast. But his hands are shaking too much to hold a spoon for the soup, and when he stands up to toast his friends, he can’t grip the speech he’s meant to read.
“One of the things we really wanted to see was what potential applications this might have,” Jarvis says. “As a theater practitioner, you’re often making shows about something, but the idea was: How could we actually do something, rather than say something about Parkinson’s?”
To that end, Jarvis and his collaborators have spent much of the last year testing Transports with doctors, nurses, psychology undergraduates, and Parkinson’s patients themselves. (The Wellcome Trust and Parkinson’s UK has funded much of their work.) Perhaps one day Transports could be incorporated into a course on treating people with Parkinson’s–or even help engineers design environments and tools that are easier to navigate.
“People with Parkinson’s are coming up with really interesting inventions and solutions,” Jarvis notes. “It’s really about shifting sympathy toward empathy, I suppose.”