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

Art in Virtual Reality

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

Robert Gulaczyk as Vincent Van Gogh, in Loving Vincent

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Virtual Reality Journalism

Journalism is largely defined by which medium it uses to convey its message. The last hundred years, it has moved from medium to medium: from text to radio, and further from photographs to video. With each new medium the fidelity of the message it is providing is steadily increasing. This is perhaps especially clear now with the use of Virtual Reality (VR) technologies for journalistic purposes. By using 360° stereoscopic (3D) cameras, we are getting very close to capturing subjective realities at given points in spacetime.

The Ultimate Empathy Machine

In his Ted Talk, Chris Milk describes the potential of VR for creating “the ultimate empathy machine”, which later has been the subject for extensive debate. The message is that we may be more empathetic towards others if we can “literally”, or at least virtually, view the situation through their eyes. Many journalistic projects have focused on refugees or war zones, such as the stories “Fight for Fallujah” and “The Displaced“. In these stories, the camera works as the eyes of the observer, as the screen in the VR goggles is mounted directly on to the eyes. The user is presented to the story through a first person perspective, and may feel present in the story as if he or she is actually being transferred to the environment.  This presence to the stories, and the following perceived realism, is what is believed to be able to increase empathy in the viewers. Of this reason also, Google News Lab’s Ethnographic Study on Immersive Journalism  describes VR news as more fit for the term “storyliving” rather than “storytelling”, indicating that the user feels a part of the story that is being conveyed.

‘See for yourself’: Is the NYT VR pitching their VR production by indicating that you can see the situation yourself, instead of adhering to the mediated version by a journalist who’ve been there?

Critics of VR as the “ultimate empathy machine”, or as capable of delivering “storyliving”, say that you can not possibly know how it is to be in a refugee camp while lying on the couch a friday evening with your VR goggles and a glass of wine. And, of course, you can not. It may, however, prove to be a more empathetic instrument than a regular video as it may seem more real and thus affect us differently.  It is no wonder that it may seem more ‘real’, when it is presented in the ‘format of reality’. Some do agree, however, and believe that it may have the power to make viewers more empathetic – nevertheless, they think that it may be unethical to use it as such. Should journalists have this power, to distribute realities to news consumers, and by new technologies we are not used to, affect people this strongly? These critics may be afraid of the “brainwashing” potential of the technology. It is easier to distance one self from a 21 inch screen than it is to distance yourself from an encompassing, immersive virtual reality you inhibit. Perhaps the most crucial question is whether it is brainwashing if what you are showed in fact is real?

Fake News

This brings us to another point of VR Journalism: how hard it is to manipulate the content. The journalist can not hide behind the camera. There is no artificial lighting or too narrow segment of the shot. The camera shoots in 360° horizontally and vertically — it is a totally observant witness at that given space and time.  In a sense, news in 360° is far less directed than in traditional flat videos: the viewer chooses which part of the video he or she wants to see. Naturally, the journalist is still an active role which chooses where to shoot, and does the final edit, however, it is a great shift from traditonal video footage. As we all know, during the last few years the concept of ‘fake news’ and mistrust in the media has arisen. The transparency that shooting with 360° 3D offers may help combat this. Perhaps also Journalism has to adapt to these changes, and rather deliver (immersive) content on which its readers themselves can decide and conclude upon. Euronews, one of the largest European news agencies, argues that this is why they have produced several 360° videos each week for now two years. In the VR session of the Digital World Conference in 2016, Editor-in-Chief of Digital Platforms, Duncan Hooper, stated they “want[ed] to let [the users] make their own decisions, not tell them what they should be watching, not to tell them what they should be thinking”.

It is, however, rather naïve to believe that immersive content alone can deliver objective truths — no matter how close the images correspond to reality. When the videos themselves lack in clear message or narrative, it is natural to imagine how they may rather be used as building bricks for constituting a narrative elsewhere. Besides, imagine the concrete example of the news coverage of the Israel and Palestine conflict. In this case, we may ask whether the journalist will choose to show immersive footage of a knife attack in Jerusalem, or deadly shots by the border patrol in Gaza? Both would be correct to show, but by this example, we see that to a certain extent, in the problem of news objectivity and fake news, it is not a problem of facts vs. non-facts; but which facts are focussed on. Immersive Journalism is no silver bullet in this regard, however, that is not to say that it may not find a natural place in news coverage. 

VR Journalism at the University of Bergen

During the spring of 2018, I taught 20 undergraduate students in VR Programming, 360° video shooting- and editing and photogrammetry. The aim was that the students should be able to create their own prototype delivering Immersive Journalism. As the rules and practices within the new concept is not very well established, we did not teach the students exactly to solve their tasks, but rather how to experiment with the novelties of the medium and try to innovate and create new genres. This is often called ‘Innovation Pedagogy’. The end result have been four brilliant prototypes, that was presented at the Norwegian Centre of Excellence (NCE) Media’s media lab in Media City Bergen. We discuss two of these here. Interested in the other two? These are mentioned in an entry where we go more in depth, philosophically, on the concept of Experience Machines.

Drug addict
The first of the VR experiences is called “Narkomani” which from Norwegian can roughly be translated to “Drug addict”. The aim of the production is to see the world from the point of view of a drug addict, perhaps living on the streets in Bergen. How is it to be frowned upon, walking around the streets, uneasy to get the next shot of dope? As my colleague Nyre stated in the introduction the projects, this VR project features “not a first person shooter from Los Angeles, but first person social realism from Bergen”.

Schizophrenia
The second of the VR experiences, attempts to create understanding on how it is to live with schizophrenia. In the experience, the user perceives visual hallucinations, and audio of up to five different personalities. The concept is brilliantly illustrated by the poster, and the experience tries to portrait a subjective reality falling apart.

Conclusion

Journalism through the medium/technology of VR has great potential. Immersive Journalism is still in its infancy, but the projects done so far shows promising. Much will depend on VR goggles entering into people’s homes, as with any other technology. For insights into where we are in the terrain of VR technology in 2018 — take a look at our entry discussing the History of Virtual Reality.

Literature list


Are you interested in more reading on this subject?

This executive summary on “Virtual Reality Journalism” by Owen & Pitt at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism is one of the first reports on VR Journalism.

Further, the report by Doyle, Gelman & Gill at the Knight Foundation is a good background read.

Finally, the Reuters report by Zillah Watson is more recent and sheds light on the more current situation of the medium for journalistic purposes. This report  illuminates a change we have seen recently, with the use of consumer/”prosumer” cameras for easier production by newsroom. This will definitely turn out, as with traditional cameras, to be a prerequisite for the adoption of this medium across Journalism as whole. When it is easier to produce content in 360° video, more newsrooms will do it.

As the reports by The Knight Foundation, The Tow Center, and further Sirkunnen et. al indicate, Immersive Journalism has not been so prevalent in less-affluent media houses. We may know of VR stories such as 6×9 by The Guardian, but have not necessarily heard of any from our local newspaper. This may change in the near future due to better consumer products.