Spaced Out is an aquatic virtual reality piece that premiered at the swimming pool at Sundance’s Festival Headquarters at the Sheraton Park City Hotel. It uses Ballast VR’s DIVR system that includes a waterproof VR headset, a snorkel,as well as a flotation belt, tether, and anchor that enables the feeling that you’re endlessly swimming in any direction.
Spaced Out is created by lead artist Pierre “Pyaré” Friquet, and it was inspired by Georges Méliès’ A Trip to the Moon. I had a chance to unpack his experiential design process along with XR artist Sutu, and sound designer & composer Mourad Bennacer (who created a sound design that could be propagated through the medium of water.) I also speak with Ballast VR co-founders Stephen Greenwood (CEO) and Ando Shah (CTO) about their journey in pioneering the aquatic VR space.
Overall, seeing a virtual reality piece in water is one of most visceral and immersive experiences I’ve had in VR, especially because there are things that happened to my body while in VR that I did not expect. Greenwood talks about how water inhibits our normal motion sickness triggers, which makes it so that some VR content is easier for people to experience. They also talk about the mammalian dive effect of being in water, which causes the heartrate to slow down, blood moving away from the periphery, and mind chatter going down. All of these are unique enough effects to merit further investigation in collaboration with Jeremy Bailenson’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab from Stanford, who will be studying the perception effects of underwater VR. There could a number of different therapeutic applications of aquatic VR, but there’s also a wide range of entertainment experiences that are now possible that Ballast VR has been exploring with a range of different water parks and other swimming pools around the world.
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Update March 9, 2020, 7:54pm: A previous version stated that Jeremy Bailenson secured some funding from the National Science Foundation to study underwater perception, but Bailenson clarified to me that the NSF grant is “about studying the response to environmental VR that is about ocean content but not about underwater in particular. We are studying the perception effects of underwater VR, but the grant is not about it.”