Real Drugs, Virtual Reality: Meet the Psychonauts Tripping in the Rift
Psychedelics help trick your brain into believing a virtual world is real life.
Image: Screenshot via Windlands
Imagine you're soaring through a colorful, 360-degree virtual world full of obstacles, making giant leaps, jumping walls and swinging through the air with a grappling hook, Spider-Man-style. Now imagine you can actually feel the g-forces and the wind on your face as you swing around, that the movement feels so real you forget you're in a game. Because you've just taken two hits of LSD.
"Just like Neo taking the Red Pill so does taking a drug change the way you perceive the world, even if that world is a computer fabricated reality," says redditor Tardigrade1, moderator of r/RiftIntoTheMind. "Psychedelics in particular make the VR experience overwhelmingly real."
Tardigrade1 (who asked me to use his pseudonym, Jon Connington) is a 21-year-old futurist who says his day job is in financial tech building a platform for the internet of things. He's part of a niche group of VR psychonauts using drugs like marijuana, mushrooms, ketamine, and acid to enhance "presence," the holy grail of virtual reality—when your brain is fooled into feeling like you're actually there.
Mind-altering chemicals can enhance presence by speeding along the suspension of disbelief. The folks I talked to say the effect is incredibly powerful.
"I felt like I'd really been transported to another world. I actually got worried that I would forget I was in a game so I kept taking my headset off to remind myself that it wasn't real," says gamer and redditor j0bon, who talked to me about playing Windlands on the virtual reality headset Oculus Rift, a simulation that has you swinging through the air like a superhero, while tripping on LSD.
Connington also describes playing Windlands high—after eating a very high dose of mushrooms: "Soon after dosing I had forgotten that I had the Rift on. The simulation was a grasslike landscape but I was too tripped out to actually walk around using the controller. I was sitting in my desk chair which has rubbery armrests. At some point I started to think I was a rabbit bunny thing, and started biting the rubbery armrests of my chair like a maniac thinking it was a carrot."
Online groups like r/RiftintotheMind and r/Trees3d are full of similar anecdotes. One user posted that a bit of weed breathed new life into the surreal landscape of Greebles, a trippy VR simulation. Another describes playing a Formula 1 racing game after three tabs of LSD: "I had to remind myself that it was only a simulation. I got my senses together, and got the car back to moving. Dear lord, the sound of the engine screaming at 19K RPM almost drove me to tears."
Connington's first VR trip was closer to what you'd typically do after taking shrooms. After donning the Rift headset, he was sitting in a cave around a crackling campfire listening to an old man reading George Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire (the series that became Game of Thrones). The simulation, Storyteller - Fireside Tales, is an immersive audio book that makes it feel like the story's being told by someone sitting next to you.
"The echoing of the old man's voice through the cave, the dripping of the water behind me, and the warmth of the fire in front were so intense and real that I felt like I could reach out and touch them," Connington says.
"I had left my student life behind and become part of the ASOIAF world, feeling like Hodor could walk in at any moment." he says. "I started to dream I was Bran, stuck in a cave somewhere North of the Wall."
In the same way certain drugs can enhance the experience of listening to music or watching movies for some, using chemical substances to make VR more believable and powerful is bound to be something we'll hear more about as the tech mainstreams, especially with marijuana legalization and more affordable hardware on the horizon.
Oculus Rift was the first reasonably priced VR headset, though still relatively expensive at $300-$350. A limited number of the DK1 and DK2 developer kits were available and sold out at around 175,000 total. Now the consumer version of the Rift is due to be released next year, but there are several other VR headsets available that'll run you anywhere from $30 to $300, plus Google Cardboard for eager psychonauts on a budget.
"I expect the use of drugs along with VR to radically increase," virtual reality expert and investor Peter Rothman told me. "The combination of psychoactive substances and particularly cannabis with VR seemingly is a match made in heaven," he wrote in an article titled "Yes You Should Get High Before Using VR" for H+ Magazine.
In fact virtual reality and psychedelics have been intertwined from the beginning: Mark Pesce actually created the original Virtual Reality Modeling Language (VRML) while tripping on LSD, as he describes in a 1999 interview with the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, MAPS. (This isn't a rarity; the role of mind-expanding drugs in problem solving and early Silicon Valley inventions is well-documented. Even Steve Jobs famously described LSD as one of the most important things he did in his life.)
Usually the comparison is made by describing VR as a sort of electronic LSD, an alternate way of expanding your consciousness. During the cyberdelics era—where cyberspace, psychedelics and rave culture coalesced near the end of the 20th century—hippie counterculture icon and psychedelics advocate Tim Leary famously called VR "the LSD of the 1990s," a comparison the tech has yet to shake, for better or worse.
We also hear a lot about VR's therapeutic potential, including for treating drug addiction, and a 2013 study looked at whether certain compounds could augment virtual reality psychotherapy for treating PTSD and found that chemically-enhanced participants showed greater improvement in PTSD symptoms and treatments for sleep, depression, and anger expression.
But combining VR and recreational drugs is a different story, with potential benefits and dangers. It's easy to imagine certain content causing a VERY bad trip. Picture battling monsters in outer space, only your brain thinks it's real—that could be pretty psychologically damaging. "You can only lose your mind once—derealization and depersonalization are terrible afflictions," Connington says. "Once it's broken it's very hard to fix."
Connington describes playing Alien: Isolation in VR, a game set on the same industrial space station as the Alien movies, where you have to avoid a huge alien monster that's on the loose and killing everyone. The game's realistic AI combined with ketamine and weed made the alien feel truly alive, he says. Add visuals induced by the trip and paranoia from the weed and he began imagining threats that weren't actually there.
"I'm not the kind of guy that gets scared that easily, but on the ket [ketamine] this game is just so insanely real and sickeningly scary that I have had flashbacks even days later. I have truly feared for my life in that game," he says. "Even after the K trip ended I was physically shaken up and lightly traumatized for days."
Some users said the drugs actually relieved the nausea associated with immersion, also called simulator sickness. Scientists have been studying whether cannabis can help relieve motion sickness. But almost everyone I talked to recommended avoiding dark, scary simulations and horror games.
Rothman, the investor, is taking that a step further, studying whether we can develop interfaces designed specifically for chemically enhanced users. He's dubbed the field "stoner interface design." He's created some data visualizations where the color palette is specifically chosen for users under the influence, and is currently looking for funding to support further research in the area.
Connington thinks we'll get so good at designing bizarre and fascinating virtual realities, they'll be even better than actually reality—especially when combined with drugs. "Reality will become somewhat dull, only leaving us with a sense of nostalgia for simpler times," he says. "Escapism will become a new disease."
Lit Up is a series about heightening—and dulling—our sense of perception. Follow along here.