#652: Design Principles for Embodiment


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Voices of VR Podcast – Episode #640

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[00:00:05.452] Kent Bye: The Voices of VR Podcast. Hello, my name is Kent Bye and welcome to The Voices of VR Podcast. So Chris Beasley is somebody who as a teenager actually got involved into a cult where she would be speaking tongues and have all these different ecstatic states of consciousness. It's an experience that has stuck with her and has been really driving the work that she's doing now, which is trying to figure out what are the fundamental components of embodiment and how are technologies like virtual and augmented reality going to be bringing the body into technology in new and completely different ways. And so Chris has been looking at the neuroscience concepts of embodied cognition, the work of George Lakoff, and trying to look at the deeper insights of how we don't just think with our brains, but we actually think with our entire bodies. And what does that mean by changing the way that we move changes the way that we think? So at the Experiential Technology Conference about a year ago, 2017, Chris was working on this YouTube channel called Embodied Reality, and she had just put out a video called the Seven Different Dimensions of Embodiment. It's her framework to be able to specifically look at the different components of embodiment and how you could design for embodiment. So we're going to be unpacking her framework around embodiments on today's episode on the Voices of VR podcast. So this interview with Chris Beasley happened on Tuesday, March 14th, 2017 at the Experiential Technology Conference and Expo in San Francisco, California. So with that, let's go ahead and dive right in.

[00:01:40.430] Cris Beasley: Hi, I'm Crystal Beasley, and I have a YouTube channel that explores the intersection of neuroscience and VR, specifically the neuroscience of embodied cognition and perception.

[00:01:54.594] Kent Bye: Great. So maybe you could tell me a bit about the story of how you got onto this track, which happens to be a track I'm very interested and fascinated about.

[00:02:02.977] Cris Beasley: Well, I don't know how far you want me to go back, but my interest in embodiment started when I was 15, although I did not know it was called embodiment until about a year ago when I ran upon the work of George Lakoff and other pioneers in cognitive science. But I got interested in embodiment quite by accident. back in Arkansas this is a very personal story but it literally I can't tell the story of what I'm doing professionally without going back to this so I was 15 in a small town in Arkansas and I joined a cult and the reason that I was attracted to it was because they spoke in tongues which is a very intense experience. I later left it and became an atheist. So I left all of the cultural and dogma aside, but this question of what was that? So that's what brought me here.

[00:02:57.535] Kent Bye: Okay. So what was it?

[00:02:58.996] Cris Beasley: Um, the way I would now describe it is a flow state. I think we are a lot more comfortable with the idea that athletes experience flow states, but I've spent about the last seven years looking at the way that cultures use ritual all across the globe and throughout time to induce these transformative flow states. That's now how I understand it.

[00:03:23.385] Kent Bye: Yeah, that's really interesting. You know, I have a pretty eclectic, esoteric background myself and have participated in, you know, shamanic breathwork and different men's retreats where we do a lot of ritual. And so, you know, my interview with Brent Leonard, the director of Lawnmower Man, he kind of explicitly put a lot of that esoteric ideas within the movie of Lawnmower Man. This idea of what could happen if you basically have all this neuroplasticity, untapped human potential by all these esoteric images. But the thing that he told me in the interview is that he was really inspired by a lot of shamanic rituals of like going back into how can we bring these collective rituals into a VR experience. And so I've been looking at the cross-section where I see this as sort of like there's live theater influence of, you know, being able to have like a sleep no more. But this concept of ritual I think is really, this is kind of maybe the second time that I've heard someone else really explicitly make the connection, and maybe the first one to really make the connection between embodied cognition, flow states, and group processes. And so I'm curious to hear, you know, the next steps of this journey of where you're kind of seeing this, how this unfolds.

[00:04:38.482] Cris Beasley: So I wrote the episode that's going to publish next week, actually, which is about the seven elements of embodiment. And it's taken me seven years to write this. I did an Ignite presentation seven years ago in Portland. And I was trying to tell this story then. But I hadn't done the research at that point.

[00:04:58.056] Kent Bye: I think we may have actually been in the same Ignite. I did a hula hooping. I don't know if you were the same one or it was the next year. But I remember seeing your presentation.

[00:05:05.023] Cris Beasley: Yeah, so I ended up just talking about what it was like to speak in tongues and when you leave that, how unbelievably your life has to completely be reinvented. That was definitely more than enough to fill up my five minute time slot. But since then, I've looked into, like I said, cross-cultural throughout time because my question that I'm trying to answer is what does it mean to have a human body and brain? What can we do with it? How can we push the edges of it? And I don't have to answer that question. There's lots of people who have done this in lots of different ways. So the seven elements of embodiment is my abstraction to understand what are all the different layers that seem like they occur over and over again. And the point of it is to provide VR developers with a framework when they're designing their experiences to go, oh, okay, so I'm using this one and this one, but there's five other elements, and I hadn't even considered how I might use some of those. At the end of the day, it's about making something that's more fun, more intense, something that people wanna play over and over.

[00:06:10.570] Kent Bye: Great, so I love frameworks, and I love systems and maps, and have come up with a number of my own, so I'm curious if maybe you could kind of lay out this seven elements of embodiment.

[00:06:21.419] Cris Beasley: So they are, I'm going to say them really quickly and then I'll give an example. Or you can just, if you want to be really fun, give me an experience and I can evaluate it against the seven. So it's motion, pose, exertion, sound, synchronization, touch, and breath. So if you think about yoga, yoga uses motion as you're moving between poses. And it uses poses, obviously. And depending on how deep into that pose you go, that dials up the exertion. Sound. Yoga uses an om to deepen the transcendent aspects of it. Synchronization. Your movements, if you're in a class, are in sync with the other people in the class. And that makes our little mirror neurons in our brains very happy. We like it when we do things in sync with other people. Things that would seem sort of ridiculous if done by yourself, suddenly become fun when they're done in sync with other people. Think about a wave in a stadium. That, standing up from your chair and waving your hands in the air, that would not be very fun, except that your brain goes, oh look, we did it with a whole bunch of people, that's super cool. Touch in yoga, touch is maybe not a huge element for that, and I want to use that to call out that It's not necessary if you use all seven of the elements, but the more that you use, the more intense it's going to be. And then breath, which is obviously super important in yoga. They're always telling you to be synchronizing your breath with your motions. And again, that's another way that synchronization is coming into play.

[00:08:02.370] Kent Bye: It's interesting, as you're saying and kind of laying out this model, I'm of course kind of matching it to my own model, seeing how things play out. I'm curious if there's sort of like a philosophical foundation for, because I think of immediately that our body has five senses, right? So you could start to connect the senses to these different dimensions, but then, you know, there's other dimensions. I'm just curious how you came up with the framework and how you connect it, if there's a mnemonic or being able to break it down for your sense of hearing, your sense of touch and feeling things.

[00:08:36.284] Cris Beasley: I like to say that we don't just have five senses, we also have proprioception and vestibular. And the reason that I didn't include things like smell, even though it's a big memory trigger and can have some emotional content, it's not something that I saw recurring in enough things that it seemed like it was worth calling out. But I'm not sure if I know, in terms of the philosophical underpinning of it, Definitely, Lakoff was a big inspiration because he called out in the early 80s that there was this underlying assumption that the cognitive science research was making, which was that you are your brain. Self is constituted from the brain. And he was interested in researching how the body contributes to self.

[00:09:27.263] Kent Bye: Interesting. Yeah, I think the Philosophy in the Flesh book, I think that came out in 1999. It just aired on today's episode on the flight over. I was writing up the blog post on my phone and posted it, but it was about the research that LLVR has been doing into embodiment, specifically looking at Philosophy in the Flesh and doing different experiments of being able to go into an experience and use the architecture of space to be able to give people an embodied interactive experience. So in my own sort of framework, I use the four elements. And so I see the air element as traditionally kind of a mental abstractions, cognitive thinking. However, I think there's actually a lot of cognition that happens in the body and the earth element, which is what I see as kind of like the virtual body ownership illusion. You get all of the haptics and putting your full body within the experience and making it feel like, you know, in a room scale experience, you're able to use your full body within that experience. But then the fire element is that agency and your willful presence of being able to actually exert some sort of decisions and things that you're changing and you're moving your body. And you're actually, if you're in your mind making choices, an L element, then you may actually take action by doing something within the experience. And usually within this 2D realm, we have abstractions of that agency. So we use buttons or some way that's not natural intuitive, but we have this sort of abstracted expression of agency. And then the water element is bringing a lot of different emotions, and so things that engage your emotional being. So music happens to do that a lot. In some sense, narrative elements and facial expressions can be a way of transmitting that emotional energy. But just looking at that from that framework, there's sort of some connections to the exertion and the sound. So I'm just curious, based upon that, if you have any additional thoughts or insights.

[00:11:22.328] Cris Beasley: Yeah, I'm glad that you brought up music in particular and its connection to emotion because music and sports are sort of the only emotions that Americans are sort of allowed to have other than anger, which is arguably not an emotion at all. So I feel like we have a big opportunity to access these embodiment ideas because they're already things that people accept, right? So if you have ever sat in your car driving down the highway, feeling the wind, and that's touch, listening to the music, hopefully singing along with it as well. Singing makes it even more embodied because you're using your muscles to produce it. You're also breathing differently when you're singing. You're breathing more deeply. You're breathing more rhythmically. And that's something people will definitely say, yeah, music changes my mood or yeah, I was having a really hard time and I listened to this one song this one time and I broke down in tears and had a cathartic moment. Those are the same mechanisms that are at work for the Balinese trance dancers who you look at and go, wow, that's really weird. It's not. It's just the same thing with the knob turned up a bit because they're also using dance, which, let's think about it, music and dance, they've been around, they're in every single culture, they've been around for a really long time. We were probably dancing before we had language. But dance incorporates the motion, the pose, the exertion, the synchronization. If you combine dancing and singing, you have all seven elements.

[00:12:56.609] Kent Bye: Is there any VR experience that you've seen that you think does a really great job of really incorporating all these different elements of embodiment?

[00:13:04.593] Cris Beasley: Yes, absolutely. There are several, but I want to call out an experience called Deep by Owen Harris. It uses a sensor that's strapped around your belly and it encourages you to breathe very deeply because you control your players motion throughout the world, which is an underwater world, in the same way that a scuba diver would. And those of you who have never scuba dived like me, this is new information. Turns out, you can change how high or low you are in the water by inhaling or exhaling, because your buoyancy is about how much water you're displacing. So when you exhale, your lungs collapse, you displace less water, so you sink. And I was speaking to Owen last week at GDC, and he was telling me these amazing stories about how people would say things like, I want to live in this space, or some people come out of it crying. Almost everyone takes off the equipment and needs to hug somebody. They don't even really care who. It's just very affecting.

[00:14:12.930] Kent Bye: Experience and I think the breath is capable of so much and we don't nearly make enough of it Yeah, I think that you know There's a whole lineage of contemplative practices that are really focused in on the breath and yoga is one meditation practices but also just it feels like there's a whole long lineage of these different contemplative practices that Now that we're introducing the body within VR, because as I look at the elemental balance, I see that film is very focused on the emotion, limited constraints on the other three elements, that gaming is very high in the air and fire in terms of your mental stimulation, but also making choices, but also the expression of your agency in an interactive way. So, but the VR component as a medium is bringing in the body in a new way that kind of goes beyond anything else that we've seen in any other medium. And I think that level of embodiment is something that gives VR something that is something that is unique and so to really focus in on okay How can we start to bring in all the different dimensions of the body? I think what you're doing is trying to kind of pull in maybe the insights from all these different disciplines and then say okay How can we actually make this in VR?

[00:15:26.081] Cris Beasley: Yeah, absolutely. The purpose of the show is to really start to become a pattern language. That it would say, okay, if you want to make an experience that's very euphoric or competitive, you would use a certain set of poses and motion and exertion. If you want to do something that's calm and contemplative, it's a very different set of those. And to dial either emotion up using more layers is good. I like what you said about how film tends to use the fire element. It tends to be very heady and intellectual driven. The body has access to a completely different side of a way to evoke an emotion. You don't have to tell a story to evoke an emotion. That's one way to do it. There's a lot of people who are way better at that than I am. And I'm happy for them to teach us what we need to know about storytelling in VR. But my purpose is to provide this pattern for people to have a grammar. We just don't even have a grammar yet. Nobody seems to be talking about anything beyond like the Wonder Woman pose thing. Some people seem to know that if you stand in a particular thing or if you smile it makes you happier. But it goes a lot further than that. And it goes a lot deeper than that. So I want people to have a grammar for the breadth of what they can accomplish using the body. And oh, one thing I wanted to say about Pose in particular. is that you feel what your body tells you to feel, right? So if the CIA or some other government puts you in a stress position, it's because you can't choose to be happy when you're in that position. And it goes beyond the pain that you might feel in that. The pose has a huge input to what emotion you are in in a particular moment. We tend to think that body language goes in one direction, that I feel bad so I have my shoulders slumped. But it is a feedback loop. If you slump your shoulders, you will feel more down. So that's what I think is incredibly thrilling about VR, is when we use the whole body as a controller, when we have tracking that can detect that stuff, there's just so much potential, even for knowing, is my player attending to the thing that I want them to be paying attention to. And we're going to be able to tell a ton by that sort of body language information.

[00:17:50.516] Kent Bye: Yeah, I think that that connection between the body and dance and communication is something that's a theme that I've seen come up in a number of different experiences. First and foremost, Sleep No More in New York City is interpretive dance. Primarily, there's no dialogue. There's essentially no dialogue in the entire experience, which I think that actually puts you into this more ritualistic state in the sense of it's primarily the right brain of you watching this unfold and you see and feel the emotion and you're on all sorts of different close quarters with that but anytime you start to use abstractions like language and text then I think it kind of flips you into a different state of mind but yet there's an amazing ability of using dance to communicate. And I've got a couple of pending interviews, some from Lily Baldwin, from her piece, Through You, at Sundance this year, as well as with Interspace VR, looking at Firebird VR, where they were using kind of this motion-captured dance to be able to tell the story. To me, I think that what you're saying is that you don't have to rely on the normal constructs of storytelling from the film realm, which is, it does use a lot of language and images as well to really communicate that. But yet, where do you see that going in terms of that pattern language of being able to communicate emotion beyond the typical constructs of what we would say is maybe traditional storytelling or even immersive theater?

[00:19:16.883] Cris Beasley: I mean, there's just such an infinite number of directions. You were asking about the philosophy of the elements. I almost feel like they align better to the way people think about the flavors in cooking, and that also might be because I really love to cook. And once you understand how flavors combine, at that core level, then that's where the artistry comes in, right? And none of the elements are necessarily better or worse than each other. There's no hierarchy in that list in the same way that sweet's not better than sour or umami, but you might have dishes that highlight one or the other. And in general, the more flavors you use, the more delicious a thing is. So, I'm hoping to catalog the techniques and the ways that things seem to be paired naturally and to look at some of those modalities like dance, like music. I'm working on an episode about generative and rhythm games because I think it's a super accessible way for people to try something that, you know, if you put on it, oh, this is a meditation or this is a flow, that's going to appeal to some people, but there's a lot of people who are like, I don't want to woo-woo crap. But if you show them some variant of like a DDR experience, they'd be into that. And they can have a deep, emotional, wonderful experience that helps them to connect back to their body. I mean, we are impoverished in a funny way. We have all this mental stimulation. And there aren't very many of us that would wish for more noise in our mental space. But we're just bereft of body stimulation. And if you can balance those two things better, Being more connected to your body actually helps you reason better and helps you make your decisions with more fidelity. Einstein attributes his violin playing to many of his breakthroughs and music is a physical thing when you're actually playing a violin. When he died they autopsied his brain and he had a couple of very unusual features, one of which is called the sine of omega, and that was correlated with his left-hand dexterity that he had from playing violin. So there's a huge correlation between physical musical performance and ability to make mathematical leaps.

[00:21:40.955] Kent Bye: Interesting. Yeah, it feels like, you know, the future of education as people really start to crack this nut of embodiment as it connected to education. I think it's gonna kind of bring back the arts and more intuitive natural movement within all of that. And as you were talking, there's a couple of VR experiences that I've had that I kind of personally think of my personal favorite experiences of embodiment within VR and One is Audio Shield, which is very much that rhythm game where you're really kind of invoking both the music and the connection you have to that music, but you just kind of feel like I'm stepping into the song in a new way. And then there's Kibibo's Blarp, which I think uses some really interesting kind of embodied gameplay mechanics that really wouldn't work in any other medium other than VR. And to me, it was just really interesting to kind of, like, use my background and playing baseball and table tennis and being able to Be more of a I'd say kind of jock athlete than a computer gamer It's sort of I feel like there's some of these embodied gameplays that I just I'm able to have that translation of the the body coordination I've cultivated through those sports and to be translated into VR So just curious if you've had a chance to play either one of those experiences and kind of evaluate it according to your framework

[00:22:55.738] Cris Beasley: So I just missed Kibibo at GDC, unfortunately. I was hoping to try out some of his stuff. I haven't played the other one either, but I love what you're saying about how... What I heard that you didn't say was... and you can tell me if you didn't mean this, there's a lack of, there's not so much intermediation. There's not an abstraction. There's not, I have to hit A to jump. You just jump, right? Like, it's more fun. Is it more fun to push a button with your thumb or is it more fun to jump?

[00:23:27.826] Kent Bye: And I think that's the difference between what I see as the design decisions that Oculus made in their controller versus what Vive did. So the Vive essentially doesn't have a lot of easy accessible buttons. They, I think, are really trying to encourage this natural and intuitive movement within the gameplay of their experiences. And I think the design decision of Oculus to put all these buttons on their controller is great for, let's say, doing, you know, Quill or Oculus Medium or these tasks where you actually want to have those abstractions and buttons to be able to do work faster. The trade-off, I see, is that it also encourages these abstracted expressions of agency within the gameplay, such that, you know, you get these very air and fire games, which puts you more in your head and more of, like, abstractions of your agency and more strategy puzzle games, rather than full embodiment. Even the front-facing cameras within Oculus and not coming out of the box in room scale, I think, gives this half level of embodied presence that I feel like is a A bit of a strategic decision that they made that is impairing the level of embodiment that people who own the Oculus can go through, in that they can look at an experience like Superhot VR, where a lot of the gameplay is based upon dodging bullets and moving your full body, and that tends to be some of the more experiences that people tend to have a lot more fun and engagement, because I think it's sort of tapping into the true power of embodiment within VR. Just in generally that's kind of what I see is the differences between the types of games that tend to be made for the Oculus Rift with those buttons and what I'm seeing with level of embodiment in the Vive.

[00:25:05.018] Cris Beasley: Absolutely. I mean, my big bone to pick is that we're at this moment very much like film was 100 years ago when it first happened. The people that came in and made the first films were either from tech, like Thomas Edison had one of the first film studios, or they came from vaudeville. And people can't help but bring the metaphors from their past. And I'm seeing a lot of, like you said, people from gaming coming in and influencing these controllers. To me, PlayStation VR is just such a bizarre half-child of things. And I have a real worry that it encourages people to stick with that old mental model, either from film or games. And we're seeing these sort of watered-down kind of crappy versions of first-person shooters and I mean there's there's no way we're gonna compete with those experiences because there's no VR experience that I'm aware of that's been in the pipeline for five years that has the kind of richness and money and Animators and all of that that a triple-a game is gonna have so I don't want to see any more racing games in VR I don't see any more first-person shooters because that's not the experience that VR can do and It's a brand new medium. We have to push the edges of it because we can't compete with the old mediums at doing what the old mediums are ideal for. We have to figure out what VR is ideal for. And I'm very concerned that there's going to be a lot of haters that say VR is not real. It's crap. It's never going to be mainstream. And it's not if we don't have great content. And we are not going to get great content if we don't figure out what it's for.

[00:26:48.404] Kent Bye: Great. And so what do you want to experience in VR then?

[00:26:51.682] Cris Beasley: I want to experience transcendence. I want to do VR experiences that are so deeply impactful that I remember them months and years later. I want to cry. I want to experience the full emotional range of humanity. Absolutely. That's not much to ask, right?

[00:27:14.550] Kent Bye: Great. And finally, what do you see as kind of the ultimate potential of virtual reality and what it might be able to enable?

[00:27:23.440] Cris Beasley: Gosh, I think if, let's just say we already did what I just described, I think it really can connect people back to their body in a way that changes their sense of self, right? Like, if you understand that your body helps you make decisions, that it helps you reason, that emotions are not terrifying, and I don't know, we're maybe not such a Medicaid and anxious society, that would be enormous. I think that would have impacts that we can't possibly imagine.

[00:27:57.452] Kent Bye: Awesome. Well, thank you so much.

[00:28:00.498] Cris Beasley: Thanks so much.

[00:28:01.837] Kent Bye: So that was Chris Beasley. She's got a YouTube channel called Embodied Reality. And she's been looking at embodiment in general, but also creating a framework for the seven different dimensions of embodiment. So I have a number of different takeaways about this interview is that, first of all, I do think that embodiment is going to be huge within virtual reality. And it's one of the big trends that I see happening now. I did this interview over a year ago now. And I think that a lot of the things that Chris was saying around embodiment and rhythm games and this trend of embodiment I think is actually now starting to to take off in a new and different way and I'm excited to see how different experiences are really going to push the limits of embodiment but also making more of an explicit connection between embodiment and thinking and cognition and how can changing the way that we move change the way that we think and As Chris has detailed within her experience and in the video, she was looking at something like speaking in tongues and how speaking in tongues was changing her entire way of thinking and her state of being and kind of getting her into these different ecstatic states. So the seven different dimensions, I'm going to break down into the elements just because I like to break things down into my meta model. I will say that reality is very complicated. There's many different dimensions. It's like a multidimensional aspect and that for us to even sort of get some sense on it, we have to collapse it down and simplify reality into these different analogies or metaphors or these maps. And the maps are not the territory. And there's always gonna be things that go against our models and our mapping of the world. But in terms of focusing on embodiment as a practice and what are the different dimensions of embodiment, some of the main things are motion, so the way that you're moving your bodies. Exertion is how you're actually exerting your energy out into the world in different ways. In the example of the video that she talks about, and speaking in tongues you're sort of holding your hands above your head and you're sort of getting yourself into this exertion exhausted state which it changes your your state of mind but both the motion and the exertion i kind of consider to be parts of the fire element of that active presence of you actually dynamically moving in some different ways in terms of the earth element there's the pose and so how are you actually putting your body into these different positions and In the video, she talks about getting into child's pose or being on your knees. That is like this vulnerable place that is also putting you into these different states of mind. And so getting into these different yoga poses also is able to change your state of cognition. But also the other thing that she talks about in the video is touch. And so in that context of speaking in tongues, there's a lot of laying of the hands, you being touched by other people, which I think is going to be very difficult to replicate within virtual reality for a number of different reasons. In part because you can kind of sense somebody's intention and how present they are by the way that they're touching you. There's something that is kind of holistically integrated by touch over time that gives you an insight into somebody else's state of mind. And I think that Being there co-located and touching other people is something that I think is actually going to be very difficult to replicate within virtual reality. And this is actually something that Crystal agrees with, but she wanted to include that for completion's sake. In terms of the water element, that's engaging the emotions and giving you the sense of time. So both the sound as well as synchronization, so the music, but not just like listening to music, but also singing music. So using your body to sing, but also the synchronization of what happens when you're synchronized with other people within a crowd situation. When you're synchronized with other people, you get into these different states of a static being. You look at a lot of the practices of drumming, but also dancing and these rituals that we have with music and these festivals and moving in sync and motion. It's just something that. When you're synchronized with a larger group, you have a relationship with that larger group and it gives you more connected to your body in that way. And finally, the air element being the breath. So you actually breathing and you paying attention to your breath and you being like really grounded into your own experience and your sense of awareness. And I think that a lot of the spiritual and contemplative practices have been centered around the breath as being this gateway for you to really be able to pay attention to the different layers of being that you have. What in yogic philosophy would be called the five koshas. And so I'm actually going to be diving into an interview with a Buddhist practitioner and somebody who's studied a lot of yogic traditions to talk about the five koshas of these different layers or sheaths of being. So overall, I see that embodiment is this huge thing that is being introduced into technology. And over these last number of episodes, I've been really focusing on embodiment as a phenomena and how that is playing out within virtual reality technologies. So that's all that I have for today. And I just wanted to thank you for listening to the Voices of VR podcast. If you enjoy the podcast, then please do spread the word, tell your friends, and consider becoming a donor to the Patreon. This is a listener-supported podcast, and so I do rely upon your donations in order to continue to bring you this coverage. So, you can donate today at patreon.com slash voicesofvr. Thanks for listening.

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