The Tao of Virtual Reality

In Tao Te Ching, perhaps the most widely translated Eastern Philosophy texts of all time, we hear of the philosopher Chuang Tzu. One night, Chuang Tzu dreamed that he was a butterfly. He dreamt that he was flying around from flower to flower and while he was dreaming he felt free, blown about by the breeze hither and thither. He was quite sure that he was a butterfly. But when he awoke he realised that he had just been dreaming, and that he was really Chuang Tzu dreaming he was a butterfly. But then Chuang Tzu asked himself the following question: was I Chuang Tzu dreaming I was a butterfly or am I now really a butterfly dreaming that I am Chuang Tzu?

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Fractal butterfly. Unknown artist.

Eastern Philosophy and VR

How we identify, that is, how we define our selves—asking ourselves who we are—has been a central inquiry in Philosophy. It is usually this question that the world religions claim to answer. We seek an answer that may soothe us, or an answer that at any rate makes sense in relation to our general experience of being-in-the-world. This latter point is crucial: we desire meaning, wholeness.  We want our lives to be purposeful. There is supposed to be something to do here, an end to be achieved, and we feel that it should be of importance.

Self & Identity in Virtual Worlds

Now—who we are can be answered in two ways, and they are both principally the same, as either will have to imply the other. If we are to define who we are as humans, then we must, necessarily, define our selves in relation to the world we inhabit. Similarly, if we choose to define the world, the definition of our world would have to include our role towards it, as worlds can not be accessed except through experience.

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Fractal tree. Unknown artist.

Let us imagine a virtual world to exemplify this.  Imagine a virtual world,  covered in a vast forest. In this world, we situate a  subject in the avatar of a strong woodchopper. Now,  the concept of the woodchopper being strong is meaningless in itself, he can only be said to be strong in relation to a particular world where the trees are weaker than him. Similarly, if we create a virtual world with very hard trees, the notion of the trees being hard, is absolutely meaningless unless as understood in relation to a certain woodchopper, for whom the trees are hard. 

Now of course, this is just basic logic, but it is nevertheless very useful in ideation of our future virtual worlds. As we have been discussing throuh various entries, such as From thought to realityThe Existential Problem of VRand The Virtually Extended Mind, with the arrival of ultimate VR we will be able to design our selves; manifest our thoughts and desires; and in so doing, realizing our selves outside of ourselves. In doing so, to guide our perspective, we must know that we can not create worlds independent of our selves; what is objective is in relation to our subjectivity. A certain virtual world will have to imply a certain virtual self—the technological material of virtual reality that is shaped in to a certain world will also shape us in our existential relation to that world.

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Yin Yang Mandala.

In philosophy and design research, such a perspective on the mediating qualities of technology—that is, how technology co-constitutes perceived subjectivity and objectivity inour experience—is known as postphenomenology. Just like its phenomenological roots (for instance Heidegger), this Western philosophy is quite related to themes from Eastern philosophy, for instance as illustrated by the Yin/Yang. Just as a certain subjectivity implies an objectivity, and a certain objectivity implies another subjectivity—the traditional Eastern symbol of Yin/Yang similarly shows how Yin implies Yang and Yang implies Ying. But what may such Eastern Philosophy and VR have in common in this regard?

These perspectives can be particularly fruitful for researchers who are investigating the mediating qualities of interactive applications, like VR environments. For instance, if I am in a virtual simulation, controlling a supersonic spaceship, it is not only me—that is, my subjectivity—which is altered. As I become able to navigate, the world—that is, what I adhere to as objectivity—also changes to become more accessible to me. Thus, the technology of the spaceship mediates a certain way of relating to the world, constituting me as a certain subject, and simultaneously, the virtual environment as a certain virtual world.

At this point we have laid the philosophical groundwork making us ready to explore the question of this entry:

Who Are We In Virtual Reality?

Chuang Tzu’s dream and subsequent merry doubt is a simple story that illustrates the flexibility of human identity. Although we usually manage to keep a solid persona and perceive our egos as relatively fixed, it is curious how malleable they are. Consider for instance how, when you are with your parents or relatives, how you are someone completely different from when you’re with your friends—and an even more different character may emerge when alone with your significant other. Beyond simple social situations as mediators of personalities and experiences, phenomena like dreams, or psychedelic drugs, also show how the human mind has the capability of radically altering what it identifies with. And not least, meditation and other forms of contemplation, can radically change our outlook on life in terms of how we identify and approach our existence.

Most exciting of all, however, Virtual Reality can also change our selves.

In our piece on Virtual Embodiment, we explored the ways in which thorough, bodily identification with a virtual avatar, can have profound behavioral effects. It can help against racism, by embodying people in other skin colours; help against violence by placing offenders as victims; it can cause a rise in cognitive performance by being embodied as someone smart, and, last but not least, as we discuss in The Virtual Freud, it can be therapeutic in allowing us a more compassionate outlook on our selves. 

Who Do You Want To Be?

The point which we often come to at Matrise, albeit from various perspectives, is to ask our selves a question. Lying in between Philosophy and VR, the question it poses is: who do we want to be? What virtual worlds will we create in the future, and who will we be, as subjects, within those worlds?

For the interested reader, who wants to further pursue this question from various other perspectives, can go on to explore this through these other entries, many of which touch upon Western- and Eastern Philosophy and VR.

In The Existential Problem of Virtual Reality, we discussed how this question that VR poses us, of who we want to be, can be said to be existential and revelatory as to our core identity.

In A Virtual Masquerade, we discussed the peculiar nature of social VR, and how embodying avatars can provide new benefits and creative expression in communication.

In The Virtually Extended Mind, we discussed how we can extend our mind functions into the virtual, and so entertained the question of how we could design our new minds. 

For more Eastern Philosophy and VR, check out our entry on Inner as Outer: Projecting Mental States as External Virtual Reality.

And finally, in A Psychedelic Virtual Reality, we discussed the possibility of visual languages which defied the subject/object dualism. 

The Virtually Extended Mind

In this entry on the VR mind, we will discuss some ideas of (living!) Philosopher David Chalmers in relation to Immersive Virtual Reality. We will discuss how we may virtually extend our minds, and what kind of VR Minds we would like to create.

Let us start off with a few words from the man himself:

Virtual Reality technology is wonderful for a philosopher because it brings alive some of the greatest philosophical questions — David Chalmers

In the installment from which the above quote was taken, the distinguished philosopher and consciousness researcher goes on to mention Descartes’ suspicion of the external world as an evil illusion—in addition to the more recent theories by Nick Bostrom that discusses the probability that our reality is illusory. Indeed, one of the benefits of the virtual is that it may provoke new ways of viewing the real. What Chalmers mention here is one of the reasons why VR is interesting for philosophers.

Matrise has for the last few years been discussing themes like these, for instance in our entry on The Experience Machine as well as in our three-series entry on Heidegger, both in which we discuss the notion of authenticity in relation to being in virtual reality. Beyond such «principal» themes, however, VR can offer way more for philosophers than just a stir in the age-old questions of philosophy. Today we will review some newer ideas and discuss their relevance for the technology of VR.

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David Chalmers. Photo by Demetrius Freeman for The New York Times—originally from this article. Further edited by Matrise.

Chalmers is very right, however, in that VR acts as a catalysator for thought. Why, it can even be said to pose an existential problem to us. As we recently covered in depth, technologies, in certain ways, are a way of human exteriorisation—a way for humans to realise themselves outside of themselves. As VR, at least in conceptual terms, is a technology capable of realising anything, we can perceive of it as an existential problem as this freedom forces us to reflect on what we value and want, and thus who we are—if we accept the premise that what we externalise can tell us who we are.

In this entry, we will take to imagining such future realities, and bring Chalmers ideas with us on the ride. Not his paralleling VR and Descartes’ evil demon, however, but by returning to some of Chalmers’ own ideas and hypotheses on the extended mind.

The Extended Mind

In 1998, together with Andy Clark, David Chalmers published a paper describing an idea under the name of “The Extended Mind.” The central question which they approach is where our minds stop and where the world begins. Where is the boundary, in other words, between the dualism of self and other, and to which degree is the brain the mind, or the mind the brain? The philosophers deal with this theme in arguing that the tools and technologies we use become part of our minds, and so we extend our selves into the world.

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Where do we end and the world begin? Artwork by M.C. Escher.

A brilliant introduction to this idea is Chalmers’ Ted Talk in which he presents the central thesis. In the talk, Chalmers parallels this view to the perhaps better known examples of bodily extensions or embodiments; for instance in how blind people’s canes work as an extension of their body. This is exactly the same principle as Merleau-Ponty’s  woman with a feathered hat which he presents in his Phenomenology of Perception; in which her bodily consciousness seem to float even out into the tip of the feather, and so she avoids breaking it.

Chalmers point is that we are outsourcing certain mind functions to machines—such as recalling phone numbers—to our phones. Similarly, spatial navigation and information is offloaded to Google Maps. Now, few would argue against the fact that technologies are performing important functions for us. Chalmers point, however, can not be reduced to understanding these technologies as tools, his argument is that they are literally becoming a part of our minds, although they are not wired directly to our brain.

The Mind / Body Problem

Now, as we said, this is touching upon the mind/brain problem: to which extent can the mind be reduced to, or traced back to, the brain? This question is not as easy as it may first seem. Obviously, if we cap someone on the head, they become unconscious and so, apparently, no mind. It may from this, naïvely, be deduced that thus the mind is the brain. When the mind is operating, however, it is harder to reduce it as it extends and uses what it perceives to operate its functions.

In addressing this problem, we can thus ask: what is so special about the inside of the brain, that only this part should have the special features constituting our mind? If something is going on outside it, as long as it is driving the processes in the brain in the same way, there is no principal difference lying in the skull separating it from the world. If the information structures you are using for your processing is stored in your local hard drive or in the cloud: does it matter? Are they not both a part of your computer, in principal terms?

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Artwork depicting a Memory or Mind Palace by Stuart Kolakovic.

The Virtually Extended Mind: A Palace?

Here we reach the point of our entry. If our minds can be extended into our physical world, how may we extend it into the virtual? In other words, a perspective that can be had in imagining the virtual worlds of the future, is to view them as extensions of our minds. What tools, then, should we use, develop and adopt during our thought processes? What would constitute our VR minds?

A good example of this that we have previously discussed at Matrise has been Memory Palacesarranging information visuo-spatially in order to better preserve it. Beyond this concrete utilisation, however, we can also imagine not memory palaces, but mind palaces. These can be personalised, meaningful places, from which we can gain sustenance, peace or productivity. They can be filled with various tools: for emotional healing, meditation, work, relaxation or entertainment. These rooms can be viewed as extensions of our minds and a way for us to immersive our selves and synchronise our selves to the various activities which we want to carry out.

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Mind Palace Illustration. Unknown artist.

The way this is related to VR as an existential problem, as we recently discussed, is that the concept of VR is asking our opinion in a different sense than normal technologies. It is not a question of whether we want A or B, but fundamentally, from the start, what would we like to see, or in other words, who do we want to be; or as Bruce Mau’s God-like question is formulated: now that we can do anything, what will we do?

What would you have in your Mind Palace, could you choose? What would constitute your VR mind?

Conclusion

I will conclude this entry with a quote from Hannibal by Thomas Harris:

Like scholars before him, Dr. Lecter stores an enormous amount of information keyed to objects in his thousand rooms, but unlike the ancients, Dr. Lecter has a second purpose for his palace; sometimes he lives there. He has passed years among its exquisite collections, while his body lay bound on a violent ward with screams buzzing the steel bars like hell’s on harp.


The interested reader can go on to these entries which are similar in theme:

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 discussed how powerful illusions can be facilitated so that users can identify completely with virtual avatars and so help us overcome prejudices, reduce racism and violence.

In A Psychedelic Virtual Reality we discussed how VR may take inspiration from psychedelic drugs and facilitate for non-dual states of consciousness through the merging of self and other.

The Existential Problem of VR

Søren Kierkegaard, the father of Existentialism, famously described anxiety, or angst, as the dizziness of freedom. Hardly a cheerful fellow—though his brilliant, satirical wit often forces one to smile—Kierkegaard clearly was no stranger to this “dizziness” he so often spoke of:

I see it all perfectly; there are two possible situations—one can either do this or that. My honest opinion and my friendly advice is this: do it or do not do it. You will regret both.

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Søren Kierkegaard by Michael Newton.

Oh dear. Despite the gloom, however, these small drops of the Danish philosopher serve to illustrate his role as a great inspiration for the existential movement within Philosophy. Existentialism is existential in the sense that it is not concerned with the thinking cogito as the starting point of human reasoning. Rather, existential philosophy could be said to be more wholesome in that it is concerned with its taking seriously the human condition of alienation—our tendency towards existential dread. The critique that existentialism holds against traditional philosophy is that it has been too locked up in cognitive schemes, thoughts and abstractions, and in so doing distanced itself from the lived experience of being human, with all that this entails, not adhering to the givens of existence.

Existentialism vs Nihilism & Pessimism

Just to be clear, however, existentialism is not the same thing as advocating a kind of nihilism or a philosophical pessimism, as warned by the existentialist Friedrich Nietzche and held by Arthur Schopenhauer and Peter Wessel Zapffe, the latter holding that to bear children into this world is like bringing wood to a burning fire. No, in addition to the gloomy writings of Kierkegaard expressing the problem to be dealt with, he is also concerned with a solution, however hopeless. Though holding that life does not come with a manual, existentialists are nevertheless concerned with authenticity, or meaning—just understood and found in a different way. Even Albert Camus, whose famous essay on The Myth of Sisyphus, in which Sisyphus is condemned to roll a stone up a mountain only to watch it roll down again ad infinitum holds that, though this is absurd in the literal sense, we must imagine Sisyphus happy.

This always reminds me of a Zen story;

When Mu-chou was asked, “We dress and eat every day, and how do we escape from having to put on clothes and eat food?” Mu-chou answered, “We dress; we eat.”

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Jean-Paul Sartre, another existential thinker. Painting by Patrick Rork

So. The giveaway point of this brief introduction is that existentialism starts from existence. It it is not concerned with any philosophical beliefs or notions prior to this point, in other words, humans and their essential role are not pre-given. As Jean-Paul Sartre put it, which further has been descriptive of the existential movement as a whole: existence precedes essence; we exist before we define ourselves, and moreover, this decision is one that necessarily must be taken alone, without hiding behind any authority in order to outsource our freedom.

It is exactly this—how we define our selves—which will be the topic of this entry: how technologies, and especially the technology of VR, may play a part in the shaping of our identity. We will discuss the relation between Existentialism and VR in howVR may pose an existential problem to us as individuals and together as a society,

The Existential Problem of Virtual Reality

So what may Existentialism say about VR? The existentialists highlight the freedom of the individual subject in altering, or at any rate defining, his or her interpretation of reality, or even ‘rendering’ or ‘creation’ of it. But how may it be that VR can be connected to this? To make our point, we will look to the phenomenological technology criticism movement that followed Heidegger’s exposition of technology.

In his book series Technics and Time, Bernhard Stiegler argues that technology show us who we are. Stiegler discusses technologies as a way of human externalisation in which we are realising our selves outside of ourselves. Moreover, for Stiegler, this also works the other way around: having externalised our self through technology, we also internalise it yet again, adopting it as parts of our identity. Effectively, therefore, VR can be said to be an expression of our selves in fundamental terms—and this expression we later use as imagery for our selves. 

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Bernhard Stiegler.

Now, what does this mean to us? The point which we wish to argue here, is that in being presented with a medium that is, conceptually at any rate, infinite in terms of what it can do, and further who we can become within it, we are faced with an existential problem.

The existential problem that we are faced with, and will be faced with ever more so when the technologies get more sophisticated, can be framed as follows: Now that we can do anything; what will we do? If we consider the point of Stiegler, that technology show us who we are, when we now have the technology to create anything in terms of our experience, VR is essentially asking us who we are, or at any rate, who we want to become. We are being given the question of who we want to become through what we want to do, by the technology allowing this freedom.

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Jaron Lanier, depicted in this painting by Darwin Price, has been a giant influence to VR technology. Not just in terms of his contributions to the commercialisation of the technology, but also experimentation and philosophy.

Conclusion: Existentialism and VR

In this piece, we discussed VR and Existentialism, in how VR asks us an existential question. Naturally, to answer this question is as a thought experiment an individual concern. But in terms of our shared reality, it will be a collective future in how it is conducted and externalised. Jaron Lanier in his book The Dawn of the New Everythin,  similarly to Stiegler wrote how VR more than any other technology, will show us who we are. The technology of VR is asking us to choose, not in an either/or situation—not a question of yes and no—but asking us to define everything by will.

The question for us is who we want to be and further what worlds we would like to dwell in; an even more radical freedom than our current situation of free choice given the circumstances. With future technology perhaps, or today through enacting it as a thought experiment, entertaining the notion may be an interesting way to ponder on who we are through what we want to do.


For the interested reader, Matrise has written entries that are similar in theme to this entry, that of VR and Existentialism. For instance:

In The Experience Machine, we discussed how Nozick’s thought experiment of the potential Experience Machine, a thought experiment aimed to test Hedonism, is related to VR.

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. This may be regarded as a partial answer to the thought experiment that this entry has discussed: what would we like to do presented the opportunity?

Similarly, In Virtual Embodiment we discussed 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. The religious-philosophical system similarly concerns the dilemma of omnipotence: what would you do if you were God?

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.

Hinduism and Virtual Reality

In this piece, we discuss the relationship between Hinduism and Virtual Reality. The cosmology of the religion category “Hinduism”; the broad metaphysic of the East, is a very interesting one. Radically different from that of the West, it is a refreshing albeit heavy shower of new ideas. The best pitch to the worldview at large, I find is best put by “spiritual entertainer” Alan Watts, who put it something like this:

Imagine you are God. Or rather — imagine you could be anything you wanted. Your will is the law of the universe. What would you do if this was the state of affairs? Well, obviously, you would throw a few parties. Really stretch it out, go crazy and mess things up for the laughs of it. The universe is your experience machine; so you do whatever you like.

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Digital illustration of Alan Watts by Jean-Francois Painchaud.

So you continue to throw these crazy parties and daring adventures for a couple hundred, or million, of years. Simply testing the limits, doing everything in your mind that can give you pleasure or kick. After a while, however, you find that you have gone out of things to do in «God mode». At least, you want something radically different. A surprise.

So you try and plan to surprise yourself. But as an omnipotent being, this is kind of hard. The curse of being all-knowing and omnipotent is, of course, despite the supreme bliss, that it’s hard to get a true kick out of it anymore. You lack the element of surprise. Surprise, as reaction, needs duality, but you are One. Just as we can’t tickle ourselves, we can’t sneak up on yourself and say «Boo!». There is another option, however; the option of deliberate illusion as to your self. You can create the illusion of splitting — and create a seeming duality within the oneness that constitutes your being.

Through abstraction, you can form the opposite of the distinct quality of your being. From the absolute one, you can conceive of the relative two — by contrast of your endless revealing as God, you conceive of a finite concealment as Man. By hiding your true nature from yourself, its revealing would, in turn, be magnificent; you enter down low to later enjoy your own highness. Though with the potential of the gruesomeness that may result from this fall, you know in the decision, that you will always wake up again to eternal bliss. The ecstasy is inevitable.

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Now — at first, you may only dare to go into the depths of time and space for a few hours. The experience is intense: the contrast of transitioning from mortality to godhood was quite ecstatic. Now — your courage grows stronger the more experienced you are, and your adventures go on to wilder and wilder dreams. You go on more and more adventures where you forget who you are, until you find yourself — right here and right now — as a human being reading blogs online.

Thus, according to Hindu cosmology each of us lives in illusion as to what is the core reality of our selves. Life can be seen as a play, and we are still playing — Brahman, the actor that plays all the parts, totally immersed and engaged in them so it forgets its real self, and instead is amusing itself in its ignorance. Reality, then, is a game of hide and seek, where you are both the hider and the seeker, playing for eternity.

The Parallels between Hinduism & VR

So how is Hinduism related to Virtual Reality? The parallels between this ancient creation myth and our dream of ultimate virtual reality may be almost too obvious: it is that of deliberate illusion. Naturally, human beings are not like to gods, but VR as a powerful illusion comes with the power to create and control worlds, to instantiate our thoughts, and actualize our designs. In our recent entry, «From Thought to Reality», we commented and discussed this technological tendency in humans in depth, in how technology in general, but VR in particular, represents «the dream of being able to define reality, to create a representation: the same dream that inspired cave paintings several ten thousands of years ago.» Essentially, 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.

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The word Avatar, frequently used in VR contexts, has its origin in the Sanskrit word «Avatāra», which means «to descend». It usually refers to when the Hindu gods to take an earthly incarnation.

So, while the Hindu myth had its aim to go from control to chaos and adventure: our dream with VR may be to go from chaos to control. We do not go from One to Dual, and although we may not yet be able to use it to get from Dual to One — it is worthwhile to consider its potential for art and change of our selves.

As Jaron Lanier put it in his book “The Dawn of the New Everything”, VR will, more than any other medium, show us who we are. It will quite simply be interesting to encounter our will and desires as expressed through the worlds we create. We have already begun this investigation and below we mention and interrelate what we have discussed here at Matrise in regards to VR’s potential for art and change of our selves.

Virtual Reality and the Self

The potential of VR for art, expression, and deep impression has been the topic in many of our entries:

In Virtual Embodiment we discussed 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 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.

Last but not least, however, in our last few entries, we have looked to VR as a possible way to escape our enframing, classifying control over nature, as discussed in our three-series entry on Heidegger’s technology critique:

In Existentialist Design, we accommodate Heidegger and Kierkegaard’s concerns and try to imagine, perhaps once again, how we may surprise our selves. The danger of surrounding ourselves in our designs, and classifying the world and its materials as means to our ends, is perhaps that we may not meet anything new — our as put by Heidegger, that it may be denied to Man to enter into a more original revealing.

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VR in floatation tanks is one idea meant to exemplify the idea of “Existentialist Design”, designing for a controlled accident in which the outcome is not known. Illustration by Jean-Francois Painchaud.

In the position paper the entry depicts, we imagine the use of VR in sensory deprivation tanks. The design is meant to be a facilitator 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 the 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.

So then, perhaps the Hindu myth isn’t the worst parallel after all. Hinduism and Virtual Reality have striking parallels in conceptual terms, and the Sanskrit word «Maya», may mean illusion, but equally as much Art. And it is Art which may prove the saving power according to Heidegger, as it opens us up to new interpretations — and do not fix us and the world in a prison of our making. Perhaps in the tank, we can once again sneak up on ourselves and say: “Boo”!

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

Existentialist Design

The term “Philosophy” can refer to a method or approach to investigate how we should relate to and understand ourselves and the world. Moreover, how we understand ourselves and the world is dependent on technology — especially in the case of mediums that present and abstract information to us. We have previously at Matrise discussed the philosophy of technology as a subfield of Philosophy. In this entry, however, we will discuss how philosophy can, concretely and directly, inform information technologies — especially within the field of Human-Computer Interaction.

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Martin Heidegger by Barry Bruner.

That how we understand ourselves and the world is dependent on technology is being recognized this year at the CHI 2019 conference in May on Human Factors in Computing Systems — the premier international conference on Human-Computer Interaction (HCI). In December last year, there was issued a call for position papers to a workshop called “Standing on the Shoulders of Giants: exploring the intersection of Philosophy and HCI“, led by experienced researchers with experience in philosophically informed design or research. In the call they write:

“Philosophy has provided a vital perspective for HCI on how we navigate, experience, understand and judge the world around us and its artifacts. Lately, HCI scholars have also sought to use philosophy’s program of answering what it means to live a “good” life to investigate the ethical and moral implications of the technologies we design. As philosophy in its many forms continues to open up new influences and our relations with technology broaden, we believe it is timely to have a meta-discussion about what links philosophy and HCI. As we understand it, philosophy’s strength lies in its diversity, depth, and interpretive flexibility.”

I’m attending CHI as I am an author of a paper there and was naturally interested in submitting a position paper. In the position paper,  I present a view of design inspired by philosophical thinkers such as Kierkegaard and Heidegger, where the aim of the design is a controlled accident in which we do not want to dominate the user experience, but rather open up for new experiences that can be interpreted by the user.

The rest of the entry is best explained by the position paper itself, with its abstract, introduction, body and conclusion. The paper can also be download and read at ResearchGate.

Title: A Controlled Accident: Imagining VR as a Catalysator for Self-exploration

Abstract
In this position paper, I discuss an existentialist design approach towards Human-Computer Interaction (HCI). 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. The paper illustrates this with an example of the employment of Virtual Reality (VR) technology in sensory deprivation tanks.


Introduction
According to Martin Heidegger’s technology criticism, the essence of technology is not itself something technological. Put way too short, technology is rather a way that we understand the world, or in Heidegger’s words, ‘a way of revealing’ (Heidegger, 1977). What we reveal in this technological framework, that is, what we deem as true, is not necessarily the truth, but only ‘correct’ relative to the framework itself. Thus, the common correct definition of technology – that technology is a human activity and a means to an end – although correct relative to the technological narrative, is not necessarily true. For Heidegger, these two definitions must not only be combined, as in that it is a human activity to think of means to ends, we must also recursively look on how this activity impacts the way we look at the statement itself.

It is the mindset of thinking in terms of means and ends, of interpreting and enframing things within this technological framework, which is the essence of technology according to Heidegger. When Heidegger speaks of ‘revealing’, he means what is presented as true and brought forth into that way of revealing. In the case of the technological framework, what is revealed is within the narratology of ‘man versus nature’, which is a fundamental view that reveals the world as such. For Heidegger, the danger is that man himself cannot escape his enframing, and that it ‘may be denied for him to enter into a more original revealing’. Heidegger’s brief comment towards a solution to this problem – although he explicitly states that modifying technology can never be the answer – is a different kind of technology, or techne, poiesis; the Greek word for both art and technology. Here he refers to art, as art is not fixed in terms of interpretation or the straight rules of means to ends, and A’s to B’s, and may, therefore, bring a more original revealing – or at least another narrative that provides another revealing.

Martin Heidegger contributed to the existential and phenomenological tradition of Philosophy in the mid-1900s. Although he never lived to see Information Technology, his philosophy on technology is not necessarily concerned with the details of different technologies, but rather what technology is in its essence. In this way, his works may still influence the design of artifacts in Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) in the 2020s. But how can existential philosophy benefit the research of the relationship between humans and machines? How can such a critical view of technology in its essence benefit the design of technology?

Existentiaalism in HCI
Arguably, methods and approaches appropriate for creating usable, enjoyable, and practically useful products and services, cannot be assumed to be also appropriate for addressing the issue of how technology is related to the most fundamental aspects of human existence” (Kaptelinin, 2018).

Kaptelinin (2018) presents a broad overview of previous existential approaches to the field of HCI. The paper is further contributive and practical in that it approaches a framework compatible with where HCI is today. Kaptelinin (2018) writes that previous attempts at employing existentialism in HCI research has not been very popular, and argues this is because it is ‘too distant from traditional HCI problems and concerns, and too abstract to provide concrete support for analysis and design’ (p. 1). This is a danger for any approach inspired by an underlying ideal and something which this position paper also is subject to. For instance, Kaptelinin (2018) discusses Karlstrøm’s (2006) paper as criticizing the ‘problem-solving attitude of HCI’. As this paper will present a similar approach, it should, therefore, immediately comment on how problem-solving itself can be undesirable.

We may, therefore, begin by restating the points of Heidegger and Kierkegaard: the problem-solving can itself be a problem. In relating to the givens of existence, the solution is not necessarily to define them as problems and find strategies to eliminate them. An approach can, however, be to explore them and see them for what they are, and thus enter into a more authentic relationship with them. Problem-solving as an attitude may provide the illusion that a fix is possible by pushing through. Thus, existentialism may claim that it is not the givens of existence that is the problem, but rather how we relate to them, either as problems or something else. The standpoint, therefore, is that problem-solving may be the real problem, as it enframes the world as something that can be solved. This is correct relative to its own framework, but in cases of how we relate to the givens of existence, this need not necessarily be true. This is further coherent with the way Kaptelinin (2018) discuss existential psychotherapy: there is not one solution to it, and that may mean that we require technology that is far more open, adaptive and exploring. It may be that in these situations technology need not provide a solution, but perhaps even on the contrary be an important tool to reinstate the problem for a more clear inspection, and by means of this lay grounds for establishing a different relationship towards it.

The aim of such a technology will rather be to open up the world for new possible interpretations, than aiming for one specific function. The question that would be explored by interaction with such technologies is whether technology can help us break a certain narrative, or put in Heideggerian terms, whether technology provides us a more original revealing. In the next section, an example of a technology that can be used this way is presented.

Presence and Immersion
In VR, presence is often defined as the degree to which the subject feels present in the virtual world. What is interesting to note, is that this naturally has to be viewed relatively to the degree that the subject feels present in the physical world as we usually receive information from both our physical and our virtual environments. There can thus be two separated approaches to designing for presence in virtual reality environments: one is to provide the sensory stimulus of the virtual environment, and the other is to block sensory stimulus from the physical environment. Both approaches work towards the same goal of immersion – the encapsulation of the user in the Virtual environment (VE).

Obviously, the principle of adding and removing sensory experience go hand in hand; by equipping a Head-Mounted Display you are blocking the physical impressions and replacing them with virtual impressions, all the while shielding for incoming light from the surroundings. Blocking light, however, is not the only way to deprive the senses of information from the physical environment. The inclusiveness of the immersion can also be achieved by sensory deprivation through floatation tanks.

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Alone With Your Thoughts”, Illustration by Cole Ott

Floating in Virtual Reality
Floatation chambers, or sensory deprivation tanks, are pools of water with copious amounts of Epsom salt. The tanks are sealed for any incoming light and sound, and the air- and water temperature is equal to that of your body. When you lie down, you will feel how the salt makes you float even though the pool is very shallow. As you lie there, you notice how the ripples you created when lying down start to slowly subside as you sink down into weightlessness. After a while, because of the air- and water temperatures are the same as that of your body, you can no longer pinpoint where the water ends and the air around you begins. In fact, it gets hard to distinguish anything from anything else, including your body from the air and water. There is really nothing that is easy to grasp as isolated, save perhaps your breath. And as the minutes go, with total physical relaxation and lack of much sensory impression at all, things may start to change.

The most significant, explicit change one may notice in the tank is that after a while your bodily self-consciousness is not what it used to be. Your mental model of where your body is in relation to the world around you starts to become blurred. Normally reinforced by tactile stimuli of air and water (of varying temperatures), and visual and auditive stimuli from the environment, your body model is now lacking information on which to create it. Your sense of spaciousness has also changed – that is the feeling of your position as defined relatively to say, the walls, mountains, and the sky have disappeared. You now really experience nothing around you, but neither any edges to this lack of information about your surroundings. You may get the feeling of floating in empty space, but where are you in all of this? What, in this stream of conscious experience is matter and what is mind?

Example Experiment
To exemplify the ideas discussed in this paper, I imagine the following experiment. A user employs a VR HMD that is connected to biometric sensors, e.g. EEG, GSR, heart rate, breathing, etc. A connected computer visualizes the feedback through abstract imagery in a 3D visualization. The direct effect is that an abstraction of the user’s state is projected externally, but the application does not do a hard classification to moods in the form of emoticons. Rather, the user can meditate and explore the visualization as the floating continues and can establish a way of exploring the technology through relating to both the medium and through it themselves. It would further be interesting to use eye-tracking technology as a way of navigation in the vast, abstract visualizations. If one traveled towards where one saw, one could even be interactive while lying still in the floatation tank. This could also possibly have curious effects on which parts (perhaps the eyes), we identify with our selves — perhaps the placement of our self could be altered by changing the agency for transportation. My interest in such a prototype or such a future experiment would be to which extent it could open us up to the direct here-and-now experience, and attempt to have experiences beyond the traditional subject-object hierarchy. It is existential in the sense that it seeks to delete the traditional narrative. 

Do you think Virtual Reality can benefit from Existentialism, or other philosophical perspectives?

Literature list

The Virtual Freud

We are not few who would save a coin or two by being able to be our own psychologist. In a very concrete sense, this is the topic of today’s entry — how Virtual Reality (VR) can allow us another perspective on ourselves, and how this may better our mental health. At Matrise, we have previously discussed how VR can benefit anxiety sufferers through virtual reality exposure therapy. We have also discussed how the medium can facilitate Mindfulness meditation. In this entry, however, we will discuss a VR application that lets you have a conversation with Dr. Sigmund Freud. Oh, but there’s a twist!

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Sigmund Freud, oil on linen. Mathieu Laca (2015).

Be Your Own VR Psychologist

In 2015, Sofia Adelaide Osimo, Rodrigo Pizarro, Bernhard Spanlag and Mel Slater published a paper called “Conversations between self and self as Sigmund Freud — A virtual body ownership paradigm for self-counseling“. The paper discusses an application where you sit in a chair facing Dr. Sigmund Freud. Upon entering the virtual environment, you do not float in empty space as one often does in VR — rather, you notice you have a virtual body that responds to your movements. This may lead you to identify the virtual body as your own, a magical feature commonly referred to as Virtual Embodiment. We have written extensively on this subject in a previous entry — but put shortly, the effect, apart from being very interesting in itself, has many practical applications. Self-identification with a virtual body can be exploited to, for instance, reduce implicit racial bias and make offenders of domestic violence get better in noticing the fear in victims.

Self as Other

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Seeing outside into the inner

When you sit in your new virtual body, facing Sigmund Freud, you are asked to tell him about a problem. Sometime after you have emptied your heart, the virtual environment fades to black, before you once again are placed in a body, but this on the other side of the room. You are now Dr. Sigmund Freud and your patient, who looks remarkably like you, starts talking. You hear a recording of what you just said minutes ago, but you get to view your statement in a ‘new dress’: a 3D model of yourself is saying it, while you are virtually embodied elsewhere. You get to view yourself from outside, instead of taking the role as yourself, take the role as your own psychologist in VR.

As humans, we know ourselves inside-out (or at least we believe we do). This may lead us to be more critical towards ourselves than others, as we compare our worst to the others best, our shame to their facade. We know all our terrible, dirty secrets, and talking to ourselves we do not have to adhere to any sort of social norms or even any general courtesy for that matter. This may lead to our inner voice becoming quite … crude. If we could focus on our own problems, in the form of the problems of others, it may be easier to be more loving towards ourselves, by utilizing the love we usually give to others. The technology can have remarkable results in affecting our selves.

In their paper abstract, Osimo et. al. write:

…this form of embodied perspective taking can lead to sufficient detachment from habitual ways of thinking about personal problems, so as to improve the outcome, and demonstrates the power of virtual body ownership to affect cognitive changes”

Internal as External

This detachment from the habitual may be very beneficial, perhaps especially in terms of Self and Identity. We have discussed this previously in our entry called “Inner as Outer: Projecting Mental States as Immersive Virtual Reality“. Apart from the philosophical buildup of the entry, the article discusses an application that, to a certain extent, allows you to view your inner states (measured through pulse and breath), as your encompassing external reality. In our entry on the use of VR in floatation tanks, we also discuss the extreme potential of this — the possibility to be stimulated by only sensory deprivation, of which can be based on your inner phenomena, thus resulting in an experience where there is no separation between the inner and the outer, thus refuting the subject-object dualism that affects our everyday living experience.

Do you have any ideas on the theme of being able to be your own VR Psychologist? How can we change our perspectives further in order to benefit our mental health? Feel free to comment below.

Sensory Deprivation — Floating in Virtual Reality

In this piece, we discuss how we can use a floatation tank to increase our immersion and presence  in Virtual Reality. If we look to our glossary, we see Presence within Virtual Reality (VR) defined as the degree to which the subject feels present in the virtual world. What is interesting to note, is that this naturally has to be viewed relatively to the degree that the subject feels present in the physical world — as we usually receive information from both our physical and our virtual environments.

There can thus be two separated approaches to designing for presence in virtual reality environments: one is to provide sensory stimulus of the virtual environment, and the other is to block sensory stimulus from the physical environment. Both approaches work towards the same goal of immersion — the encapsulation of the user in the VE. Slater and Wilbur (1997) recognise this in their definition of Immersion, which is closely related to the notion of Presence. They define immersion in terms of four qualities the system can afford, the first one of which is called inclusiveness. Inclusiveness they define as the extent to which physical reality is shut out.

Obviously, the principle of adding and removing sensory experience go hand in hand; by equipping a Head-Mounted Display you are blocking the physical impressions and replacing them with virtual impressions, all the while shielding for incoming light from the surroundings. Blocking light, however, is not the only way to deprive the senses of information from the physical environment. In this entry, we will discuss how we can maximize the inclusiveness of the immersion by achieving sensory deprivation in a floatation tank, whilst immersed in Virtual Reality!

Floatation Chambers

Floatation tanks, or sensory deprivation chambers— are pools of water with copious amounts of epsom salt (≈600kg). The floatation tanks are sealed for any incoming light and sound, and the air- and water temperature is equal to that of your body. When you lie down, you will feel how the salt makes you float even though the pool is very shallow. As you lie there, you notice how the ripples you created when lying down start to slowly subside as you sink down into weightlessness. After a while, because of the air- and water temperatures are the same as that of your body, you can no longer pinpoint where the water ends and the air around you begins. In fact, it gets hard to distinguish anything from anything else, including your body from the air and water. There is really nothing that is easy to grasp as isolated, save perhaps your breath. And as the minutes go, with total physical relaxation and lack of much sensory impression at all, things start to change.

Screenshot 2018 07 18 at 10.52.43 - Sensory Deprivation — Floating in Virtual Reality
“Alone With Your Thoughts”, Illustration by Cole Ott

The most significant, explicit change one may notice in the tank  is that after a while your bodily self-consciousness is not what it used to be. Your mental model of where your body is in relation to the world around you starts to become blurred. Normally reinforced by tactile stimuli of air and water (of varying temperatures), and visual and auditive stimuli from the environment, your body model is now lacking information on which to create it. Your sense of spaciousness has also changed, that is the feeling of your position as defined relatively to say, the walls, mountains and sky has disappeared. You now really experience nothing around you, but neither any edges to this lack of information in your surroundings. You may get the feeling of floating in empty space — but where are you in all of this? What, in this stream of conscious experience is matter and what is mind?

Inner vs Outer

6D71D188 AD2B 48A0 8DBF F288A5BBE096 - Sensory Deprivation — Floating in Virtual Reality

In our entry — ‘Inner as Outer: Projecting Mental States as External Reality‘ — we discussed the potential of using VR for meditation purposes in experimental ways. In the introduction to the entry, we discussed our feeling of Self as a duality of Inner and Outer, of which our everyday experiences usually comprise. We discussed how technology may have the power to transform our consciousness away from this traditional subject-object hierarchy and into a non-dual one, where the Inner is seen as the Outer, and the Outer as Inner. In this entry we are building further on these ideas. Similarly to visualising inner states in VR through biometrics, using VR in floatation tanks might provide illusory experiences where the conscious experience is significantly altered.

One other entry relevant to our experiments with VR in floatation tanks should be mentioned before we go on: the entry on Virtual Embodiment. In the entry, we discuss the great potential of VR to hack our consciousness; why it is possible, and what it can be used for. The research is highly relevant for floatation in VR, as both floatation tanks and VR alter our self-model, as both alter the sensory impressions necessary to maintain it.

Research on Virtual Embodiment in Floatation Tanks

Matrise partnered up with Bergen Flyt, a local company offering floatation therapy in the heart of Bergen city. We used a Samsung Gear VR with a Samsung S8 phone. We did not use a HTC Vive (Pro) as it would be more risky exposing the cable to water. Also, no room tracking or even much head orientation was needed, and in terms of resolution the HMD is quite high in ppi. We chose to first try out some abstract visualisations through the application “Fractal Lounge”, that shows varying psychedelic visuals and floating through space.

My Experience

“After I had showered, I put on the GEAR VR headset, started the application, and slowly entered the floatation pool. I held my hands towards the wall, as I did not see anything else than the visuals in the headset. When I was inside, I closed the glass door, and slowly lowered myself into the water — back first. It took a few seconds before I dared to lower my head all the way down, but very soon I was totally relaxed. As expected, the electronics in the display was kept well above water, due to the intense amount of salt in the water …”

maxresdefault - Sensory Deprivation — Floating in Virtual Reality
The kind of visualisations provided from Fractal Lounge, the application that was tried in the floatation tank.

“The visualisation pulsated, floated, drifted along — and often totally changed in colours and shapes. It took probably about ten minutes before my feeling of body totally vanished, to the degree that it was a larger gap between wanting to move the body and actually being able to move it than usual. I felt like perceiving a great drama and scene, and I got engaged in the forms and ways of the visualisations, sometimes quite invested in it, as it felt close and reality-defining for me. After about twenty minutes in, I felt as if I was drifting along in space at high speed, because of the steady movement of stars away from me. At the same time, there was no sound, which made the quick travel feel peaceful and smooth. As with normal floating, about every ten minutes there is a sort of reality-check moment where you remember you are in the tank and contemplate how weird it is. This also happened in VR, and was … equally as weird”

Reflections and Future Work

My first experiment with floatation in VR lasted for about 45 minutes. Sometimes, unfortunately, the VR headset glided slightly off my face, and I had to reposition it with my wet, salty fingers. After this happened about three times, I had to leave the tank in order to save the equipment.

sensory depro 577x1024 - Sensory Deprivation — Floating in Virtual Reality
Thank God that we have floatation pools instead of this creepy stuff.

My first experience of floating in virtual reality was very promising. The largest surprise was the feeling of movement through space at high speed. The largest frustration was the lack of any sort of interaction with ones surroundings at all, except the possibility to open and close one’s eyes. A great experiment would be to use eye tracking technology as a way of navigation in the vast, abstract psychedelic spaces. If one travelled towards where one saw, one could even be interactive while lying still in the floatation tank. This could also possibly have curious effects on which parts (perhaps the eyes), we identify with our selves. Perhaps the placement of our self could be altered by changing the agency for transportation.

Matrise will continue the cooperation with Bergen Flyt, and both try and develop different applications. Our plan is to measure the feeling of presence and self-identification and consciousness while in the tank.

Literature list

Virtual Embodiment

The most praised ability of Virtual Reality is its capability to immerse the user in a Virtual Environment — to the degree that the subject feels present in it. The magic is to be fooled by the system so that one feels present where one actually does not physically reside. This effect can, however, turn even more magical. A deeper step into the effects of technological immersion is found in the concept of Virtual Embodiment. If a subject is embodied virtually,  not only is the virtual environment accepted as such; the subject also identifies with a virtual body or avatar inside the virtual environment. This differs from realizing which character you control in a game — within Virtual Embodiment it is the same processes that make you identify with your real body that makes you identify with a virtual one. This is a key point, as it is why research into virtual embodiment is important.

Screenshot 2018 07 20 at 13.05.27 - Virtual Embodiment
Peeling layers of the onion: VR can be a tool to discover who we are, through investigation of what and how we identify with our bodies. Illustration: “Mask of Day by Day” by Paulo Zerbato.

Hacking and Experimenting with Consciousness

What is fascinating about both of these possibilities of illusion, then — is how, and that, they are possible at all. Knowledge on how to achieve such immersion is obviously relevant for all VR developers, but the knowledge that can be obtained by researching these phenomena goes far beyond knowing how to apply it in VR technology. By creating experiments in VR, we can generate, and investigate, phenomenas of the mind under various experimental conditions. Exploring Virtual Embodiment, for instance, can enable us with a better understanding of our self-consciousness and the relationship between body and mind. Because of this wider span, research on Virtual Embodiment attracts neuroscience researchers, psychologists, information scientists and philosopher’s alike.

The Rubber Hand Illusion

The Rubber Hand Illusion (RHI) is an excellent example of the kind of ‘brain hacks’ that can be achieved by sensory manipulation. The illusion, as illustrated below, is a perfectly simple experiment that does not even require the use of VR technology to perform.  The RHI was introduced by Ehrson, Spence & Passingham (2004) and has been an ingenious way to illustrate how we identify with our bodies. More importantly for this entry, the results of the experiment has inspired further research on Virtual Embodiment.

160330 The Rubber Hand Illusion grande - Virtual Embodiment
Illustration from Thomas Metzinger’s book “The Ego Tunnel: The Science of The Mind and The Myth of the Self”

In the RHI, the hand of the subject is replaced by a rubber hand, while the normal hand is blocked from sight by a separating wall. When the subject is sitting as such, a researcher will stroke each hand, both the rubber and the physical hand, simultaneously. Now, the question is what happens when experiencing the sensory impression of stroking, all the while seeing a corresponding stroke on the rubber hand?

Put very simply, the brain does a ‘reasonable guess’ that this hand is indeed the correct physical hand attached to your body.  You feel that the rubber hand is yours, with nerve-endings and all — and you couple your physical feelings to the vision of the hand. This means that in your subjective experience, the rubber hand is the hand that has the sensation. Ehrson et. al write that their results suggested that “multisensory integration in the premotor cortex provides a mechanism for bodily self-attribution”. When our brains receive sensory information from two differing sensory inputs (sight+feel), these are coupled: the brain is coupling the stroking-sensation with imagery of a nearby-hand being stroked, and this is enough for the brain to attribute its self with the hand, to acknowledge it as its own.

This simple experiment share a lot of principles with the concept of Virtual Embodiment, and has inspired research in the field that we will present in this entry.

img34 1822 - Virtual Embodiment
Some experience out of body experiences (OBEs) on the onset of sleep or waking up. Often they may feel that they are floating over their bodies. VR may help to study such states of consciousness by systematically inducing them.

Virtual Body Illusion

In a later experiment by Lenggenhager et.al (2007), not only the hands of the subjects — but their whole bodies were replaced with virtual representations. Moreover, in the experiment they present, the bodies are seen from behind. In effect, they were simulating out-of-body experiences, with very interesting results.

The experiment was conducted as such: the subjects wore a Head-Mounted Display which projected imagery from a camera located behind the subjects. As such, the subjects could see a representation of their bodies “live”, but from behind. Of course, this is deviating slightly from how we normally experience life. Although the subjects saw their body responding and performing actions in real time as under normal conditions — there is a logical dissonance due to the mismatch between the location of the subjects’ eyes in the virtual environment, and what these eyes see. Effectively, the user is seeing inside a pair of “portal” binoculars (HMD), which display the light from, if not another dimension, then at least a few feet away. And this will be a part of the point.

What is interesting about this experiment is not necessarily simply that the users feel present where they do not reside physically, but how the distance is only a few feet off. The users feel present right outside of their bodies. The situation is similar, the body and the environment is there, but everything is a bit off. What is interesting to investigate then, is how the body adapts to this. Will it accept that it now controls its body from a third person perspective, similarly to how Stratton’s subjects got used to seeing the world upside down?

What they studied was basically whether this change of perspective had an impact on where the users felt embodied. To investigate this, the researchers stroked the subjects as they did in the Rubber Hand Illusion, except at their backs — so that it was perceivable by them. The question is then where this physical feeling will be attributed to — how will the phenomena of the subjective experience present themselves to the subjects?

obe - Virtual Embodiment
Out of Body experiences can be achieved virtually by using sensory impressions from other locations, for instance five meters behind you as in the experiment by Ehrson (2007). You can then effectively look at yourself from the outside.

First of all, to be clear on this — the sensory data of being stroked will initially be provided by the nerves in the physical shoulder of the user. The problem of the brain, however, is that the shoulder is out of sight — blocked by the Head-Mounted Display. There is, however, the visual impression of a shoulder on a person standing in front — being scratched in exactly the same way. Although the nerve-endings definitely feel the stroking, the problem is that where this feeling will be placed in our subjective experience is not the responsibility of the shoulder, but rather the brain. And, as the placement of the physical feeling in the bodily self-consciousness is largely dependent on vision for coordinates, what will happen? How will the brain fix this sensory discord?

In this beautifully written article by The New Yorker, its author Rothman describes one of the co-authors of the research paper, Thomas Metzinger’s, own experience undergoing the experimental conditions:

Metzinger could feel the stroking, but the body to which it was happening seemed to be situated in front of him. He felt a strange sensation, as though he were drifting in space, or being stretched between the two bodies. He wanted to jump entirely into the body before him, but couldn’t. He seemed marooned outside of himself. It wasn’t quite an out-of-body experience, but it was proof that, using computer technology, the self-model could easily be manipulated. A new area of research had been created: virtual embodiment.”

new yorker - Virtual Embodiment
Are We Already Living in Virtual Reality?” — The New Yorker has a brilliant, long, read on Virtual Embodiment that features interviews with VR and Consciousness researchers Prof. Mel Slater and Prof. Thomas Metzinger.

Phantom Pain

Another curious potential effect of Virtual Embodiment, is the possibility of phantom sensory impressions as well. Handling virtual objects while being embodied, for instance, may convince your body to expect pain or touch — and so this is, somehow, actively generated. Because of this, VR may be a way to study how phantom pain is created, and further how it can be alleviated. For instance, several studies show how VR can embody a subject missing a leg in a body with two legs, similarly to traditional mirror therapy treatment, which is effective in reducing phantom pain. Again — what may be most interesting here is the possibility of systematically creating the phenomena and studying it afterwards. For instance, as Metzinger is quoted on in The New Yorker’s article, it may be supposed that phantom pain is created by a body model not corresponding to the physical reality. This will be the case for phantom pain in VR: it is not based on the physical reality, you are only relating to a virtual reality instead. Similarly, those those with real phantom pain may also be relating to a certain kind of “virtual reality”, but rather one in the format of their skewed narratives — maintained by their minds instead of a computer.

That the narrative, worldview and consciousness that our brain’s experience and generate is often not the best match with reality is not something new. As for Matrise, these concepts reminds us of the conclusion from our three-series entry towards a metaphysical standpoint on VR, in which we discussed VR as rather examplifying of our abstracting tendencies of mind. These entries can be read at Matrise, and were called: 1) On Mediums of Abstraction and Transparency, 2) Heidegger’s Virtual Reality, and 3) The Mind as Medium.

Virtual Embodiment for Social Good

Now that we have discussed the concept of Virtual Embodiment, it may be natural to discuss what this knowledge can be used for. As discussed already, generating experiments in VR that hacks our self models, may provide useful knowledge on the structure of our self-consciousness. Apart from this general knowledge, some may also have practical utilisation in applied VR for specific scenarios.

Racial Bias

A very exciting paper that describes work utilizing virtual embodiment, is one by Banakou, Hanumanthu and Slater. In the project, they embodied White people in Black bodies, and found that this significantly reduced their implicit racial bias! The article can be found and read in its entirety here (abstract available for all).

Domestic Violence

Another interesting project by Seinfeld et. al, is one in which male offenders of domestic violence became embodied in the role of a female victim in a virtual scenario. At first in the experiment, the male subject is familiarized with his new, female, virtual body and the new virtual environment. When the body ownership illusion, or virtual embodiment, has been achieved, a virtual male enters the room and becomes verbally abusive. All this time, the subject can see his own female body reflected in a mirror, with all his actions corresponding to his. After a while, the virtual male starts to physically throw around things and start to appear violent. Eventually it escalates and he gets closer into what feels like the subjects personal space, and appear threatening.

They write:

Our results revealed that offenders have a significantly lower ability to recognize fear in female faces compared to controls, with a bias towards classifying fearful faces as happy. After being embodied in a female victim, offenders improved their ability to recognize fearful female faces and reduced their bias towards recognizing fearful faces as happy”

The article can be read in its entirety at ResearchGate.

Staying Updated in the field of Virtual Embodiment

Research on Virtual Embodiment is happening continuously. To stay updated on this area of VR research, I enjoy following Mel Slater, Mavi Sanches-Vives and Thomas Metzinger on Twitter. Last but not least, I would stay updated on Virtual Bodyworks at Twitter, of which both Sanchez-Vives and Slater are co-founders of.


N.B: This entry lies at the centre of Matrise’s interests, and we are planning on writing several entries on this topic further in philosophical directions. Have any ideas or want to contribute? Please contact us.

Literature list

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