A Psychedelic Virtual Reality

In his book «Dawn of the New Everything» Jaron Lanier, often called the father of VR, wrote that the question he was most asked in the 1980s was to which degree VR was similar to LSD. Not a psychonaut himself, however, Lanier was not necessarily one to compare the two — he writes how he never even smoked cannabis, which was even more common in the tech circles at the time. Nevertheless, the parallel between the two, VR and Psychedelics, is still an interesting one, as both have the power to present us to other worlds, and change our self-consciousness. So much so, that Timothy Leary, the Harvard psychologist who quit his job to become one of the most prominent leading figures of the hippie movement, would call VR «digital LSD».

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Jaron Lanier, portrait by Maciej Mackiewicz. Lanier started VPL Research, the first commercial company to produce and sell immersive VR systems. His story can be read in his biography “Dawn of the New Everything”.

VR as a digital psychedelic

In his book, Lanier describes how he tried to talk Leary out of constantly presenting VR as a digital psychedelic to the press when it had its first popular wave in the 80s.  We are probably better off for it; neither Leary nor psychedelics have had the best associations over the years. The hippie counterculture didn’t really change the world much for the better and the rather irresponsible movement, in turn, became ridiculed. Now that VR is a known thing in its own right, however, there is perhaps room to compare them once more, without the risk of staining the technology as just another way to “drop out”. Psychedelics are also starting to get a somewhat better image, with more research highlighting good effects in the treatment of various disorders — just as is currently happing with VR tech.

With psychedelics, we refer to drugs such as LSD, Psilocybin, and DMT. These are powerful drugs that give visual and auditory hallucinations — that alters the subjective perception of time and identity, and further the relationship of one’s self to the world. Psychedelics are very weird stuff — we do not know much about them. The war on drugs and the hippie movement made proper research on the substances quite unfashionable — there was almost a forty year gap in which no research, whatsoever, was done. This ban on psychedelic research is starting to lift, however, and we now see more research investigating its effects on disorders such as depression, anxiety, alcoholism, etc (for those interested in proper research on these drugs, a group to follow is the Psychedelic Research Unit at John Hopkins University).

In this entry, however, we will focus on the parallel between Immersive Virtual Reality and VR, rather than discussing the newest research on psychedelics. To start off, we will turn to an author who has had few things to say on the subject when VR was still more of a concept than a full-blown reality. We will discuss the utterings of Terence McKenna.

Terence McKenna

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Terence McKenna: Author on psychedelic drugs, and theoretical (far-out and quite crazy) speculator.

Having read several books of Terence McKenna, including Food of the Gods, True Hallucinations, The Invisible Landscape, and for this entry The Archaic Revival — it is very obvious that McKenna was quite mad in his own way. Having taken that much, well, drugs, it may not come as a surprise, but at least he is leaving us with plenty of material to discuss the subject matter. No one can blame him for not having taken enough psychedelics, and he actually also immersed himself in the topic of VR — being one of the few lucky who got to try the technology at that time, though it yet was in its infancy.

VR as the Crucible of Self and Other

Terence McKenna’s book The Archaic Revival comprises several interviews and essays. One of the essays presented there was first published in Magical Blend in the winter of 1990, and was according to McKenna himself one of the very first pieces to examine potential future implications of VR technology. In the piece, McKenna imagines how VR can dissolve the boundaries of Self and Other. In referencing Lanier’s interesting embodiment experiences, where he turned himself into a lobster, McKenna imagines how humans can choose to be like octopi — in how octopi communicate ‘telepathically’ by wearing their inner life on their outer manifestation, so dissolving the boundaries between people. He writes:

“in the world of the octopus, to behold is to understand, [the octopus] does not transmit its linguistic intent, it becomes its linguistic intent.”

In other words, McKenna envisions how VR can allow us to quite literally wear our hearts on our sleeves, and approach a unity between appearance and being. McKenna calls this “visible languages”, and imagines how these may make it possible to “overcome the subject/object dualism as well as the self/other dualism”. This vision, hope or potential for the technology was in McKenna’s case inspired from psychedelic visions taking psilocybin-containing mushrooms and a brew traditionally concocted in the Amazon basin, called Ayahuasca, which contains an orally active version of the highly psychedelic drug DMT.

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Artwork by Alex Grey, representing the visuals one may encounter on DMT.

Common for psychedelic experiences, at least in high doses, is some of the effects that McKenna here envisions that VR can provide for us. Under the influence of these drugs, people can experience a unification of themselves and the world. If the effects of this unity is somewhat mild, it may help to combat a general anxiety and alienation. If the effect is very strong, however, it may obliterate all sense of “self” or “subject” in the experience, an experience that is commonly referred to as “ego death”. This aspect of experience has strong parallels within the mystics of the world religions, where the ultimate aim of the asceticism and meditation is union with God.

The question then arises, how on earth could such a vision be fulfilled through information technology such as VR? Can VR allow new languages and aid in the experiential break away from Cartesian dualism?

A Controlled Accident

“In the world of the octopus, to behold is to understand”. This sentence hints at a one-ness between symbol and meaning — in that we do not see the communication of the octopus first, and then interpret it later. There is, in other words, no “inner” of the octopus that needs to be abstracted or reduced before it can manifest as “outer”. There is no octopus first, and then communication later. This can perhaps be understood, but how can VR aid in something as radically weird as this?

We have previously at Matrise, discussed something very relevant to this. By using VR in sensory deprivation tanks — essentially all you see and feel is virtual, and this can be a first step in making your inner life reflected in your outer reality. If what you sense in the virtual world is a visualisation based on heart rhythm, brain sensors, etc., you may, over time, get a different relationship to the outer world. This neurofeedback can provide interesting loops, where a corresponding change in your psyche has an immediate representation in the outer world, and this in turn changes your psyche and so ad infinitum, hypothetically inducing a sense of harmony between inner and outer.

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Screenshot from “Deep Reality” by Amores et al. The application features an underwater environment in which fluorescent beings are procedurally generated based on your physiological state.

Lately, there has been more and more interesting work in this direction. At this years SIGGRAPH, Judith Amores presented a VR experience that aims to use unconscious biofeedback to induce relaxation via subtle visual & audio changes that are in sync with your heart and brain. At this year’s CHI, also, we saw “Inter-Dream“, a neurofeedback VR visualisation to promote calm/rest/sleep. At the same conference, I partook in a philosophy workshop, where I briefly presented a position paper describing such designs, as “existentialist” — in how they have an aim in opening us to experience, enhancing meaningful perceptions. In the abstract, it is described like this:

The aim of the existentialist designer is to not dominate the user experience, but rather to design for a controlled accident in which the medium itself is explored, and one’s self through the medium, where the overarching purpose is the exploration itself. This line of thinking is inspired by existential philosophers such as Kierkegaard and Heidegger, and its aim can be illustrated in how Kierkegaard discusses life not as a ‘problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced.’ The hope is that such an approach towards technology escapes the somewhat limited view of technology as simply a tool to get from A to B, and that technology may be seen as a lens through which reality can be presented free from an otherwise culturally enframing narrative. The aim is, therefore, to design technology as a catalysator for a more original revealing of truth.

This is what I believe has to be the trick for VR. It has to have the ability to surprise us, to let us explore — not just virtual environments, but through them gain access to parts of ourselves we did not know existed. We need to be experimental, play with the boundaries of our identities, avatars and worlds. VR is a question of what we want to become. It has the possibility to, in the words of McKenna, “release humanity into the imagination”.

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Screenshot from Kevin Mack’s newest VR experience, “Anandala“.

Conclusion: VR & Psychedelics

To conclude this entry, I want to bring the focus towards artist Kevin Mack. I heard of him through the Voices of VR podcast (episode #798). Mack creates VR experiences that attempts to give just what we have discussed in this entry: a surprise. In “Blortasia”, which is the only one of his I’ve tried, you fly around in this surreal, psychedelic landscape of “blorts”. Some of these blorts, however, behave based on you — and has an artificial intelligent element to them. Many report interesting experiences in relating to these blorts. I can’t help thinking of McKenna’s “self-transforming machine elves”, that he allegedly encountered on his various DMT trips. You can check out Blortasia on our YouTube channel AltVR:

These applications are a progress and I believe we should continue to aim for magical virtual realities, when we have under our creative control a medium of very few constraints. Like Slater and Sanchez-Vives wrote in their state-of-the-art paper “Enhancing Our Lives With Immersive Virtual Reality“: “[…] the real power of VR is not necessarily to produce a faithful reproduction of ‘reality’ but rather that it offers the possibility to step outside of the normal bounds of reality and realize goals in a totally new and unexpected way.” In light of this, we may ask ourselves how VR can take inspiration from psychedelics in their design. What are the transformative features particular to psychedelics that may be adapted to VR?

If anyone knows of similar work or ideas, please don’t hesitate to comment below or write to Matrise.


This entry is at the core of Matrise’s interests. If you found this entry on VR and Psychedelics interesting, you may also enjoy some of our other entries or YouTube videos.

As for videos, check out this simulation of an Ayahuasca Seremony:

Regarding blog pieces:

In The Virtual Freud, we discussed how VR can induce what we can call out of body experiences; by allowing us a view of ourselves from outside, we may allow us to be more compassionate towards our selves.

In Virtual Embodiment we discuss how powerful illusions can be facilitated so that users can identify completely with virtual avatars. It can help us overcome prejudices, reduce racism and violence.

In Hinduism and Virtual Reality we paralleled  the broad metaphysics of the East with the potentiality of VR tech.

In From Thought To Reality  we discussed VR as the materialiser of form, or the instantiator of the abstract. We discuss this with imagery from Tolkien and Heidegger’s philosophy.

From Thought to Reality

This particular entry discusses a perspective that can be had towards Virtual Reality technology, and in so describes a certain way of understanding or relating to it. The aim is to provide, if not a theory, at least a perspective that resonates with the experience of creating and experiencing a virtual world. The perspective tries to approach an understanding of what gives the virtual its magical qualities — and how this comes to be.

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The Hobgoblin, a powerful wizard that travels through realms on his black panther. Illustration by Tove Jansson.

The Experience of Virtual Reality

VR has the capability of enchanting us. It has the power to introduce us to virtual worlds — and represent our designs in ‘the format of reality’. The content appears non-mediated, something Metzinger relates to the «phenomenal transparency» of the mind — we see «through the medium» —  and so only the content of the representation is available for introspective access. As with our mind, the underlying processes are hidden to us, and to experience VR is to experience the content it presents, not what lies beneath it.

There is a certain kind of experience that is exclusive to VR.  Finding oneself in a virtual world — orienting, navigating and interacting with it — produces an experience of a certain distinct character.  There is something intriguing, stimulating and marvelously weird in experiencing virtual realities. The experiential quality is affected by the sheer virtuality, or unreality, of it — and this, in turn, may make the illusion unexpected and beautiful. The experience has a certain quality to it: the disassociation between its unreality on the one hand and feeling of reality on the other. We know that VR is a synthesized, not-naturally-occurring experience, and further that we react to these stimuli as if they were real. Due to its unique character of offering convincing illusions, and our unique quality of, on the one hand seeing through them, and on the other being totally helpless in responding to it as if it weren’t real — we get the weird, thrilling experience of VR. The clear illusion; the transparent veil — a weaving of smoke: beautiful, but not substantial.

How did this oxymoron of technology — VR — come to be? What does it represent in us as humans? And last but not least, how should we view, relate to, and approach the emerging virtual worlds that the technology will enable for us?

Origins of Virtual Reality

A central aspect we have to address as part of this investigation is the origins of VR. Why did it arise, and what does it mean to us? This will ultimately affect the way we relate to and understand the medium. To do this, we can look into what desire of ours that the technology has fulfilled. Although we have previously discussed the History of VR this does not really account for the underlying motivations or dreams, but rather their outward results in terms of the resulting technology. Thus, when we instead want to discuss the origins of the idea of VR, we are attempting to approach technology “in its essence” — through its origin. For some readers, this may not be unfamiliar, as we have discussed this somewhat lengthy and theoretically in our three-series entry on Heidegger and VR. Here we will limit his technology criticism to a brief summary of two sentences:  Heidegger’s definition of technology as “not in itself something technological” means that the origins of the technology we use, and what it is and means to us in its essence, leans more towards an underlying ideal and thought than what it does towards different physical artifacts. Technology is, essentially, a way of viewing the world.

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Fingolfin, Elf and High King of the Noldor, in a duel against Morgoth Bauglir, fallen Melkor of the Valar. Fingolfin and Morgoth can each represent different ways of embracing technology (read below)

Virtual Reality as Thought

If we shall try to understand the earliest origin of VR, it is appropriate to consider VR as an idea. Essentially a thought, or even a dream. The dream of being able to define reality, creating a re-presentation: the same dream that inspired cave paintings several ten thousands of years ago. VR is a product of the creative element in humans, for good and for worse. The dream of absolute control over matter, but also, the dream of a creative medium without limitations.

Similarly to how Heidegger imagined art as the potential savior of the way technology enframes the world and ourselves, J.R.R Tolkien’s distinction of magic in the universe of The Lord of The Rings can serve as a metaphor. The Elves use their magic only for artistic purposes and are consciously aware of the difference between reality and deception — the enemy, however, uses it to deceive and control. Heidegger’s point of technology is similar — technology (techne) may separate us from a more original revealing of truth by enframing the world in a certain narrative or story, while art (poiesis) may open up reality towards new interpretations. In Tolkien’s magic for purposes of domination, there is a will that is opposed to nature and thus will have to veil nature in its bringing-forth of its ‘truth’ or end. Similarly, Heidegger’s technology, as a way of revealing-concealing, will, to achieve its success, have to enframe nature and man with it — it reduces us to mere means to ends, not ends in ourselves. Tolkien’s elves use their magic in harmony with the real world; and similarly, Heidegger’s more preferred technologies let nature be as it is, instead of enframing it as a means to an end.

How are we to think of VR according to these technology criticisms? Whether we view the potentiality of the virtual as the dream of absolute control or domination (as Morgoth would have), or rather its potential for creative revealing and enhancement of the world (Fingolfin) — we can view VR as a Technology according to Heidegger, or as Magic according to Tolkien. Readers who are interested in what or how a Heidegger or Tolkien-inspired VR-application could be can go on to read the authors position paper in one of our latest blog entries. There we discuss the concept of an existentialist design — a “controlled accident” —which does not seek to dominate the user experience, but rather open the world up to new interpretations.

Virtuality as Reality

The exploration of VR as thought, or essentially as an idea, have taken us thus far. This idea or thought of VR is, however, now more actualized than ever — and what was once primarily an idea, is now more than ever a reality that we can relate to. We are able to step in, and immerse ourselves, in worlds after our own design. We can actualize, externalize, and instantiate our designs.

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Memory Palaces are systems of thought that utilizes visual and spatial cues to aid memorization.

An example of this that can illuminate the perspective of VR as thought, is the Virtual Reality Memory Palace. This ancient mnemonic (it is mentioned by Cicero in De Oratore as early as 55 BC) is based on thought: we are to close our eyes and visualize what we want to recall in the memory palace.

The memory palace is then, as the origins of VR, an idea or thought. It is internal and subjective. VR, however, allows the externalization of thought. In the same way that the idea of VR is now actualized, it allows the externalization of other ideas. We can use technology to immerse ourselves in the instantiated ideas of our mind. Is then akin to the works of Morgoth Bauglir, or Fingolfin son of Fëanor? This will depend on which thoughts are actualized: it depends on which levels of our inner being we want to realize as our outer world.

Conclusion

This entry has discussed a perspective on VR that compares it to the magic: through VR, we can define our external reality based on our inner thought. VR can be perceived as the materializer of form; the instantiator of the abstract. We described Heidegger’s explicit technology criticism and paralleled it to Tolkien’s implicit one. We also linked this to the authors position paper on a Heidegger-inspired VR technology.

For those interested, Matrise has partnered with YouTube channel Disrupt, who made a beautiful video featuring this blog piece, it can be watched here:

This entry is at the core of Matrise’s interests, and if you want further reading, these previous entries are related:

1: Inner as Outer: Projecting Mental States as External Reality

2: Sensory Deprivation — Floating in Virtual Reality

3: On Mediums of Abstraction and Transparency

4: Heidegger’s Virtual Reality

5: The Mind as Medium

Art and Virtual Reality

A couple of weeks ago, I watched the fantastic “Loving Vincent” at the cinema. Unique in its cinematography and visual effects, it depicts the life and death of Vincent van Gogh. There is, however, not much depiction of the great painter himself, as the film starts with the news about his death. Despite of this, the Van Gogh-hungry are not left unsatisfied — the whole film is oil-painted in his style, and so he is present in every stroke.

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Robert Gulaczyk as Vincent Van Gogh, in Loving Vincent

Before this turns into a movie review, I should pinpoint that this entry is in fact about Virtual Reality (VR). Loving Vincent instantly reminded me of one of my favorite VR experiences. Depicted in the film itself, “The Night Café”, originally a painting by Van Gogh, has been turned into a VR experience by Borrowed Light Studios.

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A Gif from the virtual experience of “The Night Café”, from Borrowed Light Studios.

The Night Café
On enteringThe Night Café in Immersive VR, one starts to hear piano music. Further, the scene fades from black, and one finds oneself present in a somewhat psychedelic bar depicted in “Van Gogh style”: the lights flare and pulse, and the animated characters definitely come straight from the “Uncanny Valley“. The fascinating aspect of the experience is to feel  present in a live painting: while moving around one definitely feels apart of the virtual environment. Because of the rather simple style, the resolution and refresh rates can be maximised even on mobile VR goggles, which turns it into a very graphically rich VR experience in the context of mobile VR. The experience of “The Night Café” definitely immerse you in an ecstatic, dynamic Van Gogh painting, which Van Gogh-fans and layman alike should check out. I would not be surprised if the whole  film was inspired by this VR experience.

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The original painting of “The Night Café” by Van Gogh.

The Virtual Van Gogh
Something similar to “The Night Café” was created by The Amsterdam Van Gogh Museum in 2015, where they invited their visitors to enter the bedrooms of Vincent Van Gogh and Edvard Munch in VR. Although the event has now passed, the application “Virtual Bedrooms” is available for download for Google Cardboard-devices, at App Store and at Google Play. Unlike The Night Café, however, none of these offer any navigation within the virtual environment.

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The Amsterdam Van Gogh Museum’s Illustration of their Virtual Van Gogh.

The expression of Van Gogh is enrichened, heightened, augmented and arguably also changed through the medium of VR.  VR is a medium with a lot of expression potential, and this is the immediate relevance between art and virtual reality. To broadcast their message, artists utilize every new medium in their power. In this context, it is very useful to pinpoint that the medium of VR is an especially powerful one: by enabling users to adopt different identities within any conceivable programmed world, the potential for expression is endless. Another artist we will use to examplify VR’s potential within art, is Pushwagner.

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Pushwagner Self-Portrait. which has seen a re-creation also in VR.

Pushwagner
The Norwegian contemporary artist “Pushwagner”, who unfortunately died last month, is another artist whose art is seen reimagined in the medium of VR. As part of a master’s project at the Western University of Applied Sciences, Runar Tistel has recreated the art of Pushwagner in a 360° 3D Virtual Environment. Pushwagner’s works often feature repetitive patterns and an abundance of geometrical shapes, which made Tistel approach the generating of these virtual environments mathematically. By adopting this mathematic-reductionist approach to the art, the re-creation of Pushwagner’s art to VR, is performed by a script that procedurally generates Pushwagner’s work. Essentially, the art is rendered on site, from source code text to imagery. I have myself had the joy of stepping into a recreation of Pushwagner’s self portrait in VR and found it to be a very interesting experience.

Bergen International Festival
As a resident of Bergen, I am anxiously awaiting Festspillene (Bergen International Festival); an annual event in Bergen, Norway, which is the greatest music- and theater festival in the North. The aim of the festival is to present art in every genre: music, theater, dance, opera, and the visual arts. For the first time in 2018, the Festival is introducing a “VR Lounge”, a free exhibit of VR experiences in Grieghallen. Here you can come to enjoy first class VR experiences for free: the Festival will set up several HTC Vive’s in the lounge.

Of the works being presented are The Virtual Orchestra by London Philharmonic Orchestra, which takes you to Southbank Centre, London, while they play the last part of Sibelius’ 5th symphony. In addition to this, you can see the theater show “My Name is Peter Stillmann”, inspired by Paul Austers’ City of Glass. Similarly to Loving Vincent and The Night Café, it features handdrawn animation. The experience is delivered by 59 productions, who arranged the video- and design production during the Olympic opening in London in 2012, so this should be really exciting.

BIFF
“Festspillene” is not the first event of its kind in Bergen to embrace the visual expression power of VR technologies. Residents of Bergen were equally lucky during Bergen International Film Festival (BIFF) at the exhibit “BIFF Expanded”, where they previewed various VR and AR experiences. The scope of the exhibit was to display the cross section between film, visual arts and new technology, where VR was well represented. Amongst others, the guys and gals at Crossover Labs displayed their VR experiences there, in addition to holding a workshop on Unity in VR for us at the local library. Lucky us.

Art in Virtual Reality
To summarize this entry, we can definitively say that the medium of VR proves a great venue for artists, designers, etc., to present art in 3D and 360 degrees. Not only for presenting older art, obviously, as this post presented, but to display new art that plays with established principles of visual presentation. In addition to this, VR can aid users in the creation of new art as well (check out Google Tiltbrush, or Kodon by the Bergen-based TenkLabs, which lets you draw in 360 3D).  It will be exciting to see what creative projects that emerge during the next years. For now, we have the Bergen International Festival to look forward too. If you want to join me as a VR assistant volunteer at the Festival, you can sign up here.

Oilpaint style in Unity
If you enjoy the oil-painted style in Virtual Environments, I would strongly encourage to play with the NPR Oil Paint Effect for Unity 3D, available in Unity Asset Store. The effect can turn any game or VR experience into oil-painted style. A youtube video illustrating the concept, can be seen here.

To make it a hat-trick of Van Gogh-screenshots, here is The Night Café as depicted in Loving Vincent as well. Go buy the film if you want to see it in motion  it’s worth it.

Do you know of any great art in Virtual Reality? Please comment below, and check out our videos on YouTube featuring VR artist Kevin Mack:

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Art in Virtual Reality. Illustration from Loving Vincent.

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