Project AWE: Awe-inspiring Wellness Environment (immersive installation)

Do you get enough “awe” in your life? In our busy day-to-day lives, we often take our expe­ri­ences for granted. While we have the tech­nol­ogy to con­nect with one another, like smart phones, we don’t nec­es­sar­ily get out­side with nature, or stargaze. Such activ­i­ties may con­sist of common awe-inspiring moments, and we now under­stand that feel­ing awe is asso­ci­ated with all sorts of social and well­ness ben­e­fits. But, how do we get more awe when it feels like our lives are get­ting busier, with light pol­lu­tion that obscures the stars, and when travel may not be phys­i­cally or finan­cially fea­si­ble? With this research project, we are study­ing how we can design awe-inspiring vir­tual real­ity envi­ron­ments that are avail­able for people to try, and what hap­pens to people when they are inside these envi­ron­ments. Starting from May 2017, we began under­tak­ing the cre­ation of a new immer­sive VR envi­ron­ment for induc­ing ‘awe’ in immersants.

I recently pub­lished an analy­sis of this topic on The Conversation Canada: “Inspired, mag­i­cal, con­nected: How vir­tual real­ity can make you well”, D. Quesnel, Nov 2017.

From Mount Everest to your child­hood home– what do these two places have in common? They are both places you can vir­tu­ally fly to in immer­sive Google Earth VR and have the expe­ri­ence of awe. We first pre­sented find­ings in March 2017, where we learned that par­tic­i­pants’ awe could be val­i­dated through a phys­i­o­log­i­cal indi­ca­tion of raised goose bumps on the skin, often accom­pa­nied by ‘fris­son’, a pleas­ant sen­sa­tion of chills. Many people know ‘fris­son’ from lis­ten­ing to music and from watch­ing pow­er­ful scenes in movies. As it turns out, this phys­i­o­log­i­cal mea­sure is a great indi­ca­tor of a moment of felt awe, and is even more pow­er­ful when we use sys­tems like VR that involve many senses. In our stud­ies, it turns out that these goose bump induc­ing moments also cor­re­lated with high rat­ings of awe among par­tic­i­pants. Learn more about goose bumps/frisson and awe.

“I felt more connected to the universe, and that my problems were going to be OK, and going to work out somehow. Everyone needs to experience this. Especially if they are going through a rough spot.”

Participant, femaleStated during user testing (2017)

Perhaps, VR could make expe­ri­ences of awe more avail­able to people who need them.

Using our knowl­edge on awe in VR, we opted to create an ‘awe-inspiring well­ness envi­ron­ment (AWE)’ with our part­ners at the Centre for Digital Media in Vancouver. Between the iSpace Lab and a team of Masters of Digital Media cohort, we iter­ated a pro­to­type VR envi­ron­ment that takes an imm­er­sant on a jour­ney through time and space. The envi­ron­ment doesn’t use hand con­trollers or com­pli­cated game mechan­ics to nav­i­gate, and fea­tures a scene that allows for full envi­ron­ment explo­ration, and also guided scenes where the imm­er­sant is led. Immersants simply lean in the direc­tion they wish to go. Learn more about this navigation interface.

Many imm­er­sants report feel­ings of per­sonal con­nec­tion to the guide, which is a mys­te­ri­ous crea­ture of light. During the experience’s climax, imm­er­sants have reported deep thoughts about their place in the world. We have a lot of work to do with the envi­ron­ment, as we aim to re-iterate with our par­tic­i­pants in the com­mu­nity through the process of co-creation. Our goal is that our sub­se­quent envi­ron­ments iterated throughout 2018 will allow for even more excit­ing, intu­itive inter­faces, and yet more awe-inspiring features.

How does it work?

Integrating a pre-VR experience with an immersive VR experience, we use a novel, custom interface for intuitive navigation and creative elements to prompt curiosity. In creating AWE, we synergistically combine art-led practice and a research-based design processes to evoke authentic emotions. The result is an installation that in some immersants elicits transformational experiences consisting of feelings of global connectedness and greater purpose.

The use of emotionally-charged audio and visuals aids in eliciting awe and wonder. Through a mixed-reality, physical environment that blends into a head-mounted display (HMD) VR environment, an immersant proceeds through four stages of an awe-inspiring journey: Pre-VR (physical meditation area), virtual Forest, virtual Lake, and virtual Space. A mystical ‘Sprite’ fidns the immersant on Earth, and guides them through the virtual environments, whereupon a the journey builds to a climax in Space with an incredible image of Earth from afar, evoking feelings of awe and connectedness.

The immersive journey

The experience begins inside a mixed-reality environment designed to calm and ready the immersant (stage 1). Projected visuals and soothing audio frame the environment, which contains objects mirroring those in the virtual world, inviting an easing into the experience. Next, immersants are seated on our navigation interface, and wear a HMD with headphones for a 6DoF, immersive VR experience. The first scene is set inside a tent in the middle of the woods (stage 2). “Sprite” appears and guides them through the woods. The immersant can explore, while the Sprite gently prompts them to follow into a lake, requiring a leap of faith and trust. Upon entering the water (stage 3), the immersant gradually sinks with the Sprite into the depths where magical sea creatures venture into sight. Stars begin to appear, and the water opens to a portal into Space (stage 4). The Sprite’s appearance is like that of stars in Space, and in the ultimate reveal, the Earth comes into focus with the Sun unveiling from behind. After reveling in the beauty and vastness of our planet, the immersant’s vision recedes, and they awaken at their campsite on Earth, where it is now dawn.

How do we know what the immersant feels?

We used research to derive and test our theory of awe elicitation, then implemented a variety of validation techniques to obtain evidence whether the design features are effective and inform how to improve them further. This was done through a review of awe-inspiring experiences, use of biosensors to obtain physiological data about the immersant’s emotions, and an interview technique called Cued-Recall Debriefing. Through recognition of the immersants’ affective experience during each iteration, we were able to validate artistic intuition and thus design for the emotional arc.

This installation is undergoing continuous iterations through a research-based design process. There will be forthcoming papers that explore the work in more detail in later 2018 onwards.

AWE installed at TEDxEastVan

Installed September 2017, 30+ immersants in one day. (Vancouver, BC)

AWE installed at Innovation Showcase

As part of the SPLASH workshop on Software for Augmented and Virtual Reality. Installed October 2017, 15+ immersants in one day (Vancouver, BC)

AWE installed at TEDxSFU

Installed November 2017, 20+ immersants in one day. (Vancouver, BC)

Participant and Earth screenshot

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