The design team behind Bioflight VR has worked on television shows such as CSI and ER, and they’ve been able to translate their VFX visualization skills into a virtual reality medical education venture. Their original plans were to use virtual reality to help doctors utilize the volumetric information captured in MRIs, CAT scans, and ultrasounds to improve upon medical diagnosis from 2D slices of data, but they started to gain more traction with creating a couple of different types of educational experiences. They started creating time-lapse experiences showing the long-term impacts of sodium consumption and smoking in videos meant for doctors to show patients to inspire behavior modification, and they also created a number of interactive medical training scenarios that would allow medical students to experience intense emergency room scenarios that would allow them to be evaluated based upon their competency and performance.
I had a chance to catch up with co-founder and chief creative officer Rik Shorten at the Silicon Valley Virtual Reality conference both in May 2016 as well as a follow-up and update in March of 2017. This interview tracks the evolution of Bioflight VR starting with ambitions to use VR for medical diagnosis, and then their pivot focusing more on medical training and patient behavioral modification and education the following year. There are a lot of opportunities for virtual reality to become a huge part of telemedicine and providing a platform to visualize data that you collect about your body, but virtual reality seems to be making it’s first strides into the medical field through patient and student education before the more advanced and higher-end applications of medical diagnosis and distributed telemedicine are adopted.
Dr. Skip Rizzo heads the Medical VR Research Group at USC’s Institute for Creative Technologies, which has been exploring how to use VR for psychological treatments, cognitive assessment, motor rehabilitation therapy, as well as interactions with virtual humans. He’s been on the forefront of using virtual reality to treat soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder with virtual exposure therapy. VR is used to incrementally trigger an embodied sensory experience in PTSD patients by placing soldiers within the virtual sights, sounds, feelings, and smells of common combat scenarios in Iraq and Afghanistan. This virtual exposure therapy stimulates the original embodied experience of traumatic events for soldiers so that they can connect to specific details of their memories so that they can do a process of cognitive restructuring by telling the story of their experience. Rizzo says that a key component of healing from PTSD is if the patient is able to connect to the underlying emotions of the experience while sharing the narrative of their experience, and that this can unlock a cascade of healing effects that USC has been able to measure over the years.
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I had a chance to try out a demo of the VR PTSD Exposure Therapy project during a reception at USC ICT during the IEEE VR 2017 conference in Los Angeles in March, and was struck by their holistic multi-modal approach of using subwoofers, smells, and passive haptic guns. I caught up with Dr. Rizzo to talk about his work in using VR to heal from PTSD, the importance of storytelling and emotional presence, and their future work in expanding treatment scenarios for victims of Military Sexual Trauma, and moving into civilian trauma with first-responders like police and firemen. He also talked about an episodic, interactive storytelling experience that will be like an emotional obstacle course of navigating different traumatic scenarios with the help of a virtual human that is helps guide the patient through the cultivation of coping skills for stress management, mindfulness techniques, and cognitive reappraisal. This work at USC ICT shows that immersive virtual environments can stimulate a deep sense of embodied and emotional presence that has vast healing potential that goes well beyond just the gaming and entertainment applications.
Here’s a 20-minute VICE Canada Story on Virtual Reality PTSD Exposure Therapy
Dean Radin is the lead scientist of the Institute of Noetic Sciences where he’s been working on cutting-edge consciousness research of showing measurable mind and matter interactions with quantum phenomena. He’s published 17 papers showing statistical significance of meditators being able to subjectively project their consciousness and make an “observation” in a double-slit experiment that collapses the quantum wave function. You can read more in his Physics Essays paper “Psychophysical interactions with a double-slit interference pattern,” as well as this lecture on mind-matter interactions at a consciousness conference. Radin’s team is starting to look at whether or not they can use virtual to amplify the effects of this remote observation triggering signs of a quantum wave function collapse. Rather than imagining an observation in your mind, will they see similar effects by replicating this experiment within VR where they can be more embodied.
The quantum measurement problem is an open problem in quantum mechanics, and the Von Neumann–Wigner interpretation that consciousness causes collapse of the wave function is merely one of many possible theories, but it’s one that Radin is explicitly researching. He’s also researching whether or not consciousness can entangle photons beyond the theoretical strength of Tsirelson’s bound. Radin’s team is still too early in this research to report any results either way, but it’s the type of consciousness work that they’re pioneering.
I had a chance to do a deep dive with Radin at the latest Institute of Noetic Sciences conference about what his research into quantum mechanics and consciousness means for coming to a better understanding about the ultimate nature of reality. Radin says that there’s some scientists and physicists are coming to a more Pythagorean belief that perhaps the fundamental base reality is some sort of mathematical or symbolic realm. This is a theory that Max Tegmark explores in great detail in his book Our Mathematical Universe, and a high-level summary can be found in his technical preprint called The Mathematical Universe. Radin says the idea of a fundamental mathematical base reality is one that comes from the Pythagoreans, and that it forms the foundations of the more esoteric Neoplatonic and Hermetic traditions of magic. It’s led him to write a book coming out in 2018 titled Magic is Real where he came to the conclusion that he sees enough scientific evidence that would support the claims made from the lore of these magical traditions.
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Rain says that perhaps virtual reality will serve as a reality turing test of sorts to be able to help up discern which level of reality that we’re currently living. In his book, Supernormal he examines the claims made of Siddhi superpowers that have been detailed in a 2,000-year-old manuscript known as the Yoga Sutras. He says that if you’re able to achieve an enlightened state of samadhi, then that could unlock all sorts of latent human potentials including many of the psychic phenomena that he’s explored in his previous books The Conscious Universe and Entangled Minds. So in essence, if you reach a state of enlightenment, then you’re able to start to literally cut through the matrix of reality and start to achieve things that are only bounded by your belief and imagination.
Radin is on the frontier of science, and so a lot of his research is not yet widely accepted within the wider mainstream thinking yet.
Even though Radin has personally experienced being able to bend his spoon with his will, he’s a data-driven empirical scientist who has more faith within the wider scientific method. Some of these more extreme claims of supernormal human potential made within the Yoga Sutras presuppose that people are able to more readily reach these mythic states of enlightened consciousness, which is not an easy feat. But overall, he’s committed to doing the type of basic research into quantum mechanics that could help solve the mysteries of consciousness, and potentially lead to larger paradigm shifts towards these philosophical ideas of panpsychism.
I didn’t have the capacity to go through his entire work within the context of this podcast interview, but I’d recommend that you check out this lecture about his mind-matter double slit interactions talk at a consciousness conference, David Chalmer’s TED talk on panpsychism, as well as a more extended documentary about the philosophical metaphysics of panpsychism.
The hard problem of the mind/body split and the ultimate nature consciousness is an open question in the science community, and there are a range of philosophies that try to handle this split. Cartesian dualists explicitly acknowledge this split as different realms, but interactions between the mind and body have started to break this down. There’s a lot of scientific materialists who are holding out that consciousness will eventually be discovered to be an emergent property of the our neuroscience. Idealism is the opposite of materialism in saying the subjective experience is primary, and it’s similar to saying that consciousness is fundamental in that matter could be an emergent property of a base reality of awareness or information. Panpsychism sees consciousness as universal in that every photo is conscious or carries a certain level of information processing capability. University of Sydney professor Kai Riemer says that phenomenology tries to get rid of the whole idea of this subject/object split, and that it’s a much more holistic approach of centering everything around the interconnections of the meaning of objects and our direct human experience.
Phenomenologist Gabriella Farina has resisted a precise definition by saying, “A unique and final definition of phenomenology is dangerous and perhaps even paradoxical as it lacks a thematic focus. In fact, it is not a doctrine, nor a philosophical school, but rather a style of thought, a method, an open and ever-renewed experience having different results.” I had a chance to catch up with phenomenologist Kai Riemer at SIGGRAPH where he gave his perspective on what phenomenology is and why it’s holistic approach could provide some vital insights for people working in VR.
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Specifically, Riemer talks a lot about French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception book from 1945 that talks about the role of the body in perception. He also cites George Lakoff’s Women, Fire and Dangerous Things of show how a lot of our primary metaphors for understanding the world come from our direct experience of the world through our bodies. The holistic approach of phenomenology shows that the stories and narratives of direct experience should be given equal weight to the objectified data that is seen as primary by reductionists and physicalist materialists. Archeologists need to be able to understand the full story behind what people thought artifacts meant within the full context of a culture before they can fully understand what they’ve discovered.
What’s clear from talking to Riemer and other philosophers is that VR provides a embodied experience of philosophical discussions that are otherwise pretty abstract and disconnected from our direct experience. Phenomenology is an elusive concept to firmly pin down, but my conversation with Riemer has helped me appreciate it’s holistic approach to the connection between reality and experience.
Killing Floor: Incursion is a horror game featuring lots of gore that is sure to evoke visceral reactions in players. I had a chance to play a demo at GDC, and I can say that it’s definitely an experience has stuck with me. The mechanics of beating enemies with their dismembered limbs had an extreme amount of blood splattering that it was a mix of being at the same time grossly disturbing and ridiculously comic. I had a chance to talk with project lead Leland Scali about the horror genre in VR, pushing the boundaries of how far to take gore within immersive VR, and their deeper game design process of creating an experience within their Killing Floor universe.
Scali admits that they’re treading a fine line of it being funny or amusing versus taking it too far, and so it’ll be interesting to see how VR gamers and the larger media react to this experience as it could be a catalyst to larger discussions about the impact embodied experiences of gory violence within virtual reality. He says that this is not an experience about rainbows and happiness, but rather one that’s gory & dark with a dash of quirky humor. Ultimately it seems to be about power — specifically giving the player the power to complete the task, and assaulting them heavily to see if they can handle it.
Dr. Marilyn Schlitz is a social anthropologist, consciousness researcher, and co-author of the books Consciousness & Healing and Living Deeply. Her anthropological work has been at the frontier of researching how different cultures use various indigenous practices to invoke mind-body interactions for the sake of healing, and she’s come up with higher order frameworks to describe consciousness transformations from spiritual practices. She’s starting to look at how to invoke states of awe & wonder within VR, and whether this will be able to catalyze collective shifts in consciousness.
She says that we’re each living within our own reality bubbles, and that some of the most important skills in the 21st Century will be able to come to an awareness of our filters and to cultivate the capacity to understand, empathize, and interact with people who are living in completely different models of reality. We talk about some of the game design work that she’s doing in order to achieve this, as well as how virtual reality might provide a window into our multidimensional nature and help us become more aware of our own aspects of inattentional blindness.
Gunter S. Thompson has been hosting VR meetups in VRChat for the past 3 years where he will give guided tours through the latest additions to the VRChat metaverse, and he also hosts a live talk show every Tuesday called “Gunter’s Universe.” I had a chance to catch up with Gunter at SVVR about two months after VRChat launched on Steam on February 1st where we talked about highlights from his social VR adventures, the challenges of dealing with harassment and trolling with VRChat after it’s public launch, and hanging out at the most popular bar in the metaverse, which is called “The Great Pug.”
Custom avatars in social VR add a lot of fidelity of identity expression and creative flair in applications like VRChat or High Fidelity. Morph3D is a custom avatar solution that offers a number of free avatars within VRChat, but they also have a custom tool where you can customize your own virtual avatar. I had a chance to catch up with Chris “DeepRifer” Madsen, Morph3D’s head of VR/AR at GDC where we talked about some of the reactive avatars that they’re working on. Madsen has tried to explore something new in VR every day for the past four years, and he also shares some of the highlights of his social VR experiences from the last four years.
Anyland is a social VR experience focusing on worldbuilding and avatar creation tools that allow you to create interactive experiences while in VR. They’ve also implemented an open sharing feature that makes it easy to collect objects from the world and share them with other people. Stephanie Mendoza is a VR developer and artist who has spent a lot of time creating worlds and exploring the gift economy dynamics within Anyland, and I had a chance to capture some of her stories and social experiments. She talks about the social status that comes with discovering bugs and glitches, documenting her adventures of agency expression and interactions with trolls, and how VR has been helping her have lucid dreams that have featured Anyland’s worldbuilding user interfaces.
At the end of this podcast wrap-up, I share some of my reflections and lessons learned from AltSpaceVR including if optimizing for both mobile & high-end PC was too limiting, the potential importance of more robust options for identity expressions and world building, the importance of virtual economies being built into large social VR applications, and the challenges around harassment in VR. I also compare and contrast AltSpace VR with other social VR applications including Rec Room, VRChat, High Fidelity, Anyland, BigScreen, JanusVR, Spaces, Project Sansar, vTime, WebVR, and Decentraland. Amber also talks about her AmberVR YouTube channel where she plays GearVR games, and the importance of promoting mobile VR applications.
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AltSpaceVR was a pioneer and innovator in the social VR space creating the first bridge between mobile VR and high-end VR, and they published a video of community members sharing their favorite memories within AltSpaceVR:
Here’s my previous six Voices of VR interviews with AltSpaceVR since May 2014:
Here’s a popular event featuring Reggie Watts and Justin Roiland Live in VR
One of their last big events was Bill Nye talking about 8 Principles About Everything
Finally, UploadVR’s David Jagneaux captured some of the final moments of AltspaceVR’s Good Bye party on August 3rd (although it was still online as of Friday afternoon, but could go offline at any moment).