Sensory Deprivation — Floating 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 floatation tanks. Floating in Virtual Reality!

Floatation Chambers

Floatation chambers, or sensory deprivation tanks — are pools of water with copious amounts of epsom salt (≈600kg). 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 start to change.

“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

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 …”

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.

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 Reality Memory Palaces

The ancient mnemonic “method of Loci” has been in use for thousands of years. From memory competitors to students, the method helps to memorise items by combining visual and spatial cues. Many have perhaps heard of the technique through popular TV shows such as Sherlock or Hannibal, where their “Mind Palaces” or “Memory Palaces” are portrayed as a genius trait.

Illustration based on “Mind Attic” by wonderful artist Tisserande. Original version without Head-Mounted Display can be found here.

The real method, however, is perfectly simple. You start by finding a location to act as your Memory Palace. It should be a place you know well, for instance your apartment or your university. You further isolate several rooms, and sub-parts of those rooms, that amount to the number of things you want to recall. Next, you may want to have a certain route which you mentally walk through your Memory Palace. This is where the method comes in: you visualise what you want to recall at the given places in your Mind Palace. Need to go shopping? Imagine coffee beans poured out on the floor, orange juice cartons in the sofa, and bananas hanging on the TV. If you need to recall something more abstract, you can get creative and use the visualisation as an association to what you want to recall instead.

This method is believed to be powerful because of the combination of information with visual cues (the visualisation of the memory items), and with spatial cues (their given place in the environment). Curiously, however, this exploitation of the visual and spatial cues in the brain, does not involve our vision, or true perception of spatial three-dimensional spaces at all — only through our “inner eye” and our already-established memory of spatial environments.

“Get out — I need to go to my Mind Palace”. Benedict Cumberbatch in BBC’s Sherlock  — Quite busy in his Memory Palace. Illustration of by edthatch.

But what if we could perform this method with raw, fresh vision that gives us both the visual and spatial cues? Such a task is perfect for the medium of Immersive Virtual Reality. In VR, we are provided with highly optimisible a visuo-spatial environment made of software, which gives us the opportunity  to tailor the Memory Palaces to our own needs. By exploiting the visuo-spatial elements of the method of Loci in a much more explicit sense,  the method may perhaps work even better, or be more fun and easy to use.

Addressing this, I created an a VR memory palace app as part of my master’s thesis in Information Science. The application is called “Mnemosyne”,  after the Greek goddess of memory, of which country the Method of Loci originated. Developed with A-Frame, the application presents you with a text field where you can enter the things you want to recall. You then put on your VR headset, and are presented with an apartment with five rooms where you can place these memory items you entered. The algorithm returns images based on your text preferences from a search engine, and places these in the virtual environment. When this is done, you just walk around and watch to memorise the items.

Mnemosyne is still just a prototype, and we can imagine it will have room for many improvements in the future – after more research has been done. Currently, we at the Centre for the Science of Learning & Technology (SLATE) have performed a pilot study with 18 participants. The short paper discussing the findings was published in June 2018 in the Springer’s series «Lecture Notes on Computer Science», in the «Augmented Reality, Virtual Reality and Computer Graphics» edition. The conference paper was presented in the beautiful village of Otranto at the Salento AVR conference in July.

Our first paper on VR Memory Palaces was posted in the LNCS on Augmented Reality, Virtual Reality and Computer Graphics.

Our paper, ‘Mnemosyne: Adapting the Method of Loci to Immersive Virtual Reality’, can be accessed at Springer. Stay put at Matrise for further updates on our work regarding Virtual Reality Memory Palaces.

Literature list