Exploring mortality in virtual reality

Exploring mortality in virtual reality

Part of MEX Inspirations, an ongoing series exploring tangents and their relationship to better experience design.

Could virtual reality help humans better consider their own mortality?

When We Die combines an abstract virtual reality scene with spatial audio of a physician and hospice worker discussing death.

The project was created by Leslie Ruckman, Dana Abrassart and Paula Ceballos within NYU’s ITP programme and is described as:

A meditation on our own mortality and an examination of attitudes towards dying in western culture…

Mona Lalwani described the experience in an article for Engadget:

I’m sitting on a field of tall, red grass staring straight ahead at a lone tree. Its leaves match the crimson landscape that stretches out before me. In the distance, a rusty orange forest fades into the background. There’s a gentle rustling of leaves, occasionally interrupted by the faint chirping of a bird, that forces me to breathe slower.

“Thank you for being here and being willing to consider moving towards the idea of dying and death,” a calm, male voice prepares me for the virtual meditative journey.

A hazy white light source rises in the distance as the voice walks me through the process of focusing on my breathing. I watch the blades of the grass swish to the left with the wind. The tree slowly starts to lose its leaves.

“Feel the air around you,” the voice continues. “Feel yourself letting go as if you’re a tree dropping your leaves. The breeze takes the leaves away. Everything that you know and everything you cherish will be taken by the wind.”

As I let the weight of those words sink in, the blue sky slowly takes on a deep green hue, ushering in darker skies. Within moments, the field beneath me turns into a deep red lake that starts to rise around me. I gasp for air before I quickly remind myself that I have an Oculus Rift headset on my face.

We’ve already been convinced of virtual reality’s ability to drive physical responses and emotional connections, documenting our discoveries in episode 17 of the MEX podcast, where we tried HTC’s Vive.

This capability to influence human behaviour has largely been directed towards playful engagements in the first generation of products, but why shouldn’t the same technology be harnessed for something with deeper meaning? It may be that the safe and temporary environment of virtual reality becomes an ideal medium through which to explore themes such as mortality, physical and mental health – which are often charged with emotion not just for the principle individual but for all of the loved ones with whom their lives intertwine.

Update: listen to Paula Ceballos, one of the project’s creators, discuss When We Die with MEX founder Marek Pawlowski in episode 32 of the MEX Design Talk podcast.

Part of MEX Inspirations, an ongoing series exploring tangents and their relationship to better experience design.