When We Die
Creators: Dana Abrassart, Paula Ceballos, Leslie Ruckman
(NYU Interactive Telecommunications Program)
Platform: Oculus Rift
When We Die (WWD) is a meditation on mortality and dying, created by three students at NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program. I had the chance to try this app at a Consciousness Hacking event hosted in Harvard Divinity School’s chapel; the perfect setting for a meditation of any kind. The experience includes two chapters that take place in to two distinct animated environments that are accompanied by narration. In the second chapter, gaze selection is used to activate narrations, but aside from that, the experience is passive.
WWD opens in a serene animated landscape with grass gently flowing in the wind, a tree rustling in the foreground, and a line of trees swaying in the distance beneath a gradient blue sky. A calm breeze accompanies the narrator’s voice welcoming the user, “Thank you for being here and being willing to consider moving towards the idea of dying and death”. After the user is welcomed into the experience, the narrator moves into a guided breathing meditation that incorporates visuals of leaves falling from the tree in the foreground, “Feel yourself letting go as if you're a tree dropping your leaves. The breeze takes the leaves away.”
WWD experiments in colors as well. There are slow transitions between colors wherein the sky changes from a blue to a deep green, and then into a dark sky. The green grass transitions into a red. In this regard, the creators are said to be inspired by Richard Mosse’s work in infrared imagery. That is, there are parts of the light spectrum we do not see, and this is likened to how our mortality is always with us, yet we do not normally recognize it.
The second chapter shifts from contemplating the user’s own mortality into a more general conversation about the process of dying. The environment consists of a dark flowing body of water beneath the user and a dark cosmic sky above, lit in a way reminiscent of how a planetarium would project the Milky Way galaxy as a soft strip of white light across the sky. Audio narrations consist of stories shared by a hospice worker and a neuroscientist, and they are activated by gaze selection, as the user glances at one of several shapes floating above the water.
I deeply enjoyed WWD. First, I believe it successfully leveraged native VR affordances: the ability to remove distractions, immerse users in an environment, and engage a captive audience. I particularly appreciated the color changes as it helped shift me out of my usual way of thinking and listen a little more carefully and openly. Perhaps this kind of abstraction provides a safe distance, or it brings us into a visual framework that matches a hidden conception of mortality? Whatever the case, I found the color changes to be effective. Lastly, the stories in chapter 2 were very moving, and I found the design of a passive experience to be entirely appropriate. It was important to have an experience light on visual distractions in order to listen closely to the narrations.
Overall, WWD is a great example of how an experience can leverage key affordances native in VR.