Bringing Consciousness to Virtual Reality

April 3, 2017
Virtual reality
A user tries the "Chi" virtual reality app during an event in Andover Chapel. Photo: Michael Naughton, HDS

The scene is surreal. Trees, falling leaves, and tall grass—all red—appear set against a black sky. A monotone voice says “It’s OK to feel some fear, some discomfort.”

This is a chapter in the new virtual reality app “When We Die.” Dozens of people lined up to try out the app, and other virtual reality experiences, during an event in late March in Harvard Divinity School’s Andover Chapel.

The event, organized by the student-led HDS Augmented and Virtual Reality Collective and the Cambridge chapter of Consciousness Hacking, aimed to bridge the disparate worlds of tech engineering and development and the study of religion, morality, and ethics.

Bringing Divinity School students together with scientists and engineers will help fill some of the holes developers leave behind when creating these increasingly popular virtual reality experiences.

“Developers are eager to fill those holes. They need to hear from practitioners and people who are thinking about the ethics of it,” said Tim Gallati, an MDiv candidate and founder of the HDS virtual reality group.

A user tries the When We Die virtual reality experience during an event in Andover Chapel. Photo: Michael Naughton, HDS

For example, a developer may make a meditation app that’s based on breathing or closing one’s eyes, but doesn’t realize how varied meditation can be or may miss the nuances because he or she simply doesn’t have the background a practitioner or scholar has, Gallati said.

Gallati, along with Luna Yuan, a student at Harvard Business School, and Qi Xiong, a Graduate School of Design student, developed “Chi,” a virtual reality experience that integrates tactile feedback and visual cues to teach Tai Chi.

“Developers want to actually create these apps in step with the ways they have been practiced,” he said.

A user tries the Chi virtual reality experience during an event in Andover Chapel. Photo: Michael Naughton, HDS

The “When We Die” app was developed by New York-based designers and scientists Dana Abrassart, Leslie Ruckman, and Paula Ceballos. It serves as a guided meditation around the process of contemplating one’s own mortality and dying.

“Aging, death, and mortality are not topics that are openly spoken about in western cultures, so it’s addressing that, making it top of mind, and making you comfortable in the discomfort of mortality and dying,” said Ceballos.

As virtual reality continues to explore meaningful subjects, like death, it’s Gallati’s hope that Divinity School students can offer their insight.

“Virtual Reality is not Cyberdyne Systems,” he said, referring to the villainous company in the “Terminator” franchise. “It’s something much more human, and I think what the Divinity School can offer is that sweet spot of human experience.”

—by Michael Naughton