What do virtual reality and peyote have in common? Thorsten S. Wiedemann has some thoughts.
Wiedemann, mid-performance at the Game Science Center
Last weekend, Thorsten S. Wiedemann became the only human to spend two uninterrupted days in virtual reality. The performance, which was hosted by the Game Science Center in Berlin, was titled DISCONNECTED. We were lucky enough to speak to Wiedemann just days after the performance.
Motherboard: How did this experience change the way you think about virtual reality?
Thorsten S. Wiedemann: It's opened up a lot for me. Coming from the gaming side, now I see much, much more potential in virtual reality. One thing I really learned in this 48 hours is that the content is not good enough to do something like this, though. The boredom starts after 20, 24 hours, because of the repetition. The world is very simple. It's pretty flat. There's nothing you can really discover. Maybe there are different worlds, bigger worlds where you can spend three or four hours. Maybe I had the wrong selection, but I trusted the taste of my "VR Shaman" Sara Anna Lisa Vogl, [a virtual reality designer who created a number of scenarios for Wiedemann to play through].
Prior to DISCONNECTED, how long had you spent in virtual reality?
The longest was one hour. I think it was in Deep, a breathing game. You move around in an underwater world, and there's a special controller around your belly. When you inhale and exhale, you move around. It's pretty abstract, very nice and beautiful.
What led you to attempt this?
Since Oculus came out with the glasses and made the Kickstarter, I've been an advocate for it. All the dreams I've had, and all the movies, everything I've seen before, thinking about what the future is like—it's just coming together. As you maybe know, I work in independent video games, and I'm running the A-MAZE festival—we actually added virtual reality to the A-MAZE awards in 2015. Because I wanted to show off virtual reality in the festival, Valve sent me an HTC Vive.
That's when I came up with the idea of, how long can I stay in this room, walk around, live a little bit in there. How does the technology last for longer amounts of time? How does it psychologically work, if I stayed 12 hours in there? And then I thought, well, everybody in virtual reality tech has been in there for 12 hours. So maybe I'd go 24 hours. Then I was talking to Sara and I said, okay, let's do it, 48 hours.
Did the project change as you got closer to the performance?
Yeah. The first idea was that I was completely isolated with noise-canceling headphones, that I don't sleep at all. But it's already a challenge to spend 48 hours awake without drugs and I don't want to take drugs in virtual reality. So I decided to sleep maybe two and a half hours per day. I also thought it would be a cool experience to fall asleep and wake up in virtual reality, so we changed that.
The sleeping part was really interesting. I thought I would be shocked to wake up in a computer generated world, but I guess the brain is pretty stupid. When you sleep in your home, you know that you'll wake up in the same environment. I thought that would be different in virtual reality, but it feels the same. I was sleeping in a cage, which Sara had built me up in the mountain, so I could look at the sky. It was beautiful. The second night, somehow, the Steam virtual reality had a dropout and Sara had to restart. I was waking up near the sea, and that was irritating. It was like someone had taken me somewhere else.
Any headaches, nausea? These are common side effects of exposure to virtual reality.
Nope, nothing. I've never had nausea in any of the games. I don't know, maybe I don't get it. I thought I would get red eyes, but nothing. I was prepared—I had medication and stuff like that. I ended up taking nothing. I was just eating bananas and chocolate and chips, things to bring down my nerves.
The most challenging thing was all of the noise around me, since I had no noise-canceling headphones. I did it in the Game Science Center, and there were a lot of people passing by, hanging out, chatting. It made me mad. The other installations had their own sound, too, and that repetition made me crazy. I think the next trip, I really want to do with the noise-canceling headphones, so I can focus completely on the world.
So, no problems at all. Oh—two days later, I got some spots on my skin. Probably just too much chocolate.
You described Sara Vogl, your assistant, as your "VR Shaman." What was that title mean for you?
It's tied to the idea of DISCONNECTED—showing what's happening in 2026, ten years later. Everyone has their virtual reality glasses, everyone goes to educate themselves through virtual reality or whatever. But you go to centers if you want to do a real trip. So I was thinking, if you want to do a long trip, you need some control. When you use peyote, you run around with a shaman, and he takes care of you. She delivers the trip to you, and shows you the world, and gives you some hints to help you understand the experience. For me, Sara was something like that, somebody I trusted to jump into this world and experience completely without fear. When I have a bad trip, I need somebody.
And actually, I did have a bad trip. In real life, I have panic attacks, once every two years or so. During the performance, I had two panic attacks. The first one I got through on my own, but the second one was after—whatever, 26 hours. My heart was beating too fast. I was very close to taking the glasses off. I was very stressed out, I couldn't get relaxed. But Sara got me through it. The shaman is important. You don't jump in there by yourself.
You are now the human who has spent the longest in virtual reality. How long do you think that title will last?
I was never thinking of doing a world record. I was doing it for myself. I don't care if someone goes longer—it would be nice to have someone challenging that.
What I want to try now is to jump together with Sara into virtual reality. I don't want to do 48 hours—maybe 24 or 12. We can travel through different worlds, completely monitored and completely isolated. Especially when the worlds are so boring, it's very nice when you have someone with you to talk. And maybe you would have more meaningful moments. When you're alone in there, you want to share, but you can't. That's pretty strange.