The ability to contemplate our finite existence is a fundamental part of the human experience, but we rarely reflect on it in our daily lives until it is often too late or under traumatic circumstances. This is particularly apparent in Western culture where death has been largely removed from modern life and when apparent, is an intensely medical process.
Granted, it is uncomfortable to acknowledge our eventual nonexistence, our vulnerability and fragility, and the idea that all that we have in this world – material and immaterial – will be lost. However, if we are able to confront the idea of our mortality more often, perhaps it can be motivating, even clarifying. It can help us focus on the things that are truly important to us, as well as prepare for when the inevitable occurs.
When We Die is a virtual reality experience that guides users through the process of contemplating their own mortality and presents points of view that may not previously have been considered.
The experience is divided into two parts:
Part 1: A guided mediation asks users to open themselves to the idea of their nonexistence using the analogy of a tree cycling through seasons. The imagery consists of an open field with a single tree in the foreground and takes on the style of a color film negative. In other words, a world that is both familiar and dissimilar to their own. The world cycles from night, into day, and then back into night. As the meditation brings the user back to their awareness, the world transitions to scene 2.
Stephanie’s meditation (voice of Richard Lapham)
Part 2: The user is transported to a colorful night sky above and a calm and reflective ocean of water below. In the sky are glowing, rotating shapes. An audio cue informs the users that they may select from different audio clips by holding their gaze momentarily over the shapes. The audio clips are snippets from our interviews with our experts, Stephanie Hope, RN, BSN & Gayatri Devi, MD.
Devi Audio Clips
Hope Audio Clips
During the show, we set up a white tent in the corner of the room and lined the floor with pillows and soft lights. Given the madness of the ITP show, it was a relatively comfortable and serene space.
We were fortunate in that both Stephanie and Dr. Devi were able to come and try the experience. Happily, both of them expressed how impressed they were and thought it was really well done. Stephanie watched it twice and told us that it felt really validating from a professional standpoint, which is perhaps the highest praise we could have received throughout the evening.
Overall, we had some really great conversations with people over the course of the 2-day show. The vast majority of people described the experience as “beautiful” and “moving,” even “serene.” We also had a handful of people who chose not to partake due to recent circumstances in their own life or who felt really uncomfortable afterwards, for the same reason. Fortunately, they were very explicit with us about their criticisms. For example, one woman with such recent experiences told us that the fact that the trees and grass weren’t realistic in color was disturbing to her. She wanted the contrast of a “living” environment when listening to such a narrative, which is something to consider.
We also had great conversations with many health care professionals who work with dying patients. Many of them (and others) implied that this might be an interesting piece to show to terminally ill patients, not dissimilar to what the Psilocybin Project does.
Somewhat hilariously and serendipitously, one man who had actually done a project about dying in VR recently also went through the experience and thoroughly enjoyed it. He is listed in this article that was published barely a month ago, so it seems it’s a hot topic. He has actually already reached out and was interested in chatting further.
Importantly, we gathered a list of a lot of technical details that we need to iron out, including:
* Make time restraints in last scene known
* Move the shapes down so they are all in people’s immediate field of vision
* Disable already played audio clips
* Work on transition scenes
In summary, the show was immensely useful from a user-testing standpoint both technically and conceptually. We weren’t sure how something like this would be received and though we had a few negative reactions, the majority were overwhelming positive and emotionally touching. People seemed really excited by the idea of meditation in VR and thought the technology paired incredibly well with the idea.
I think we would all agree that this is something we would like to continue to work on in the future. We are working on the website and hope to reach out to some of the people from the show to continue to gain feedback about future iterations.