I Tried Tripping on Virtual Reality
"Turn on, boot up, jack in."
Sci-Fi-London Director Louis Savy and VR artist Carl Guyenette. Image: Victoria Turk/Motherboard
"Is the VR headset the LSD of the new millennium?"
This question was posed at an event in London this week discussing "cyberdelics"—the idea of using tech such as virtual reality to stimulate the kind of out-of-body or trip-like experiences associated with psychedelic drugs. Advocates suggest that increasingly immersive technologies could affect the mind like chemistry and bring about alternative states of consciousness. As VR becomes more accessible with the launch of commercial products such as the Oculus Rift and Samsung Gear, could we soon be replacing narcotics with downloads and getting high on pixels?
"I've had out-of-body experiences—which were not caused by psychedelics—but I've managed to mimic them with doing the thing with the Oculus where you link it up to two cameras and put the cameras behind you," Carl H. Smith, director of the Learning Technology Research Centre at Ravensbourne college, told me after a panel at a Virtual Futures salon in Soho. "So there are definite ways to do certain traits of the psychedelic experience."
The kind of "out-of-body experience" he's talking about has been demonstrated by the likes of Henrik Ehrsson at Sweden's Karolinska Institute in Sweden: By streaming video of someone's back into a virtual reality headset on their face, he's able to make them "believe" they are actually watching themselves from behind; they feel like they've left their body and are observing from a distance. Others have used the same idea to create a "body swap" experience. This kind of illusion, Smith thinks, is the closest we've got yet to a consciousness-altering experience through VR.
"The tricky thing is, it's not just a visual experience; it's an experience of your mind," added Smith.
So it was that I found myself clicking on a virtual pill, entering a floppy disc, and zooming through circuit boards, lasers, and flying equations in a 3D landscape
Cyberdelics is not new; the concept has been around since at least the 80s, bolstered by psychedelic advocate and philosopher Timothy Leary, who encouraged followers to "turn on, boot up, jack in." It's an attractive prospect: a way to broaden the human experience, easily, legally, and without the risk of a bad trip. But the radical social change dreamed of by cyberpunks past has so far fallen short, and while VR headsets have advanced since then, the basic effect hasn't progressed much. As event host Luke Robert Mason put it, "Does cyberdelics exist, or is it just 60s aesthetics mashed with 80s tech?"
To explore the current age of cyberdelics, we were going to attempt to have a shared cyberdelic trip. Fifty people wearing Google Cardboard duly booted up and jacked in to see a short VR experience called "Hack the Planet," created by PsychFi.
So it was that I found myself clicking on a virtual pill, entering a floppy disc, and zooming through circuit boards, lasers, and flying equations in a 3D landscape inspired by Leary and 90s classic Hackers. Created to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the film, we explored the app-based cyberworld to music from composer Simon Boswell.
It was immersive, but it wasn't transformative.
This was a frequent complaint throughout the evening: Can virtual reality ever be "psychedelic" in more than just aesthetics? Or is it doomed to be just a slightly more engaging version of the kind of cheesy drug visuals you see in regular film scenes, intended for passive consumption rather than to aid any consciousness-bending introspection?
Boswell, who spoke in a panel discussion, argued that an issue with virtual reality experiences is that they don't require users to engage their own imagination; it's not subjective in the way that a trip induced by drugs, or even just music, is. He recalled attempting a "shared" psychedelic experience in the past by getting a bunch of people on LSD to listen to music together—but noted that, in reality, everyone was on a separate trip. "Your own dreams are always going to be more powerful than the dreams of someone else," he said.
But perhaps trying to mimic an acid trip is the wrong way to think about cyberdelics. Perhaps it's not an alternative to psychoactive substances but something different, with its own effects and applications. While I'd gone to the event hoping to get high on technology, some of the speakers seemed to have more noble aims.
Carl Guyenette, an artist with Spheres VR, took a more long-term look at what virtual reality could mean in the future—"not these shoeboxes you're putting on your face." Described as a "psychonaut," he believes VR at its best could have similar effects to psychedelics in terms of letting people experience a new perspective on reality.
Applications he thought this could have included instilling empathy (he used the example of a VR experience told through the perspective of a refugee on the island of Lesbos), education, and communicating abstract ideas.
Most speakers were agreed that we haven't attained the cyberdelic promise yet, partly because of the enduring clunkiness of current VR hardware and a lack of content; Sci-Fi-London festival director Louis Savy thought VR had "a long way to go to deliver something really groundbreaking," while artist Ghislaine Boddington, cofounder of design group Body>Data>Space, stressed the need for greater diversity in VR content creation.
But Guyenette envisaged a future beyond the Oculus Rift, where VR experiences are delivered via nanobot (perhaps bringing them closer in action to conventional mind-altering substances).
"At the moment, headsets are giving us a really good way to investigate how to communicate in this way, because it is finally kind of nice—I actually quite like going into VR," he said. "It can be spiritual, it can be weird, it can be scary, but the fact that it's working now and it's bringing out powerful emotions in people means that the time is right to start investigating it."