When We Die
A VR reflection on mortality and death
Disease, aging and dying are just not a subject people like to talk about. Especially in western cultures. It is a delicate subject that most people avoid until they inevitably have to face it, or are forced into the conversation.
That’s just what happened to me at the beginning of November. Because life happens, I had a friend die unexpectedly in a car accident. To say that event shook me up would be an understatement. Serendipitously, it was at that time that I needed to solidify an idea for a project with my partners Dana Abrassart and Leslie Ruckman. We wanted to focus on creating a safe space for hard conversations, and we decided to focus on the topic of death after I found out of my friend’s news.
After research and brainstorming, Dana mentioned that she had worked in the past with neurologist Dr. Gayatri Devi, MD and Stephanie Hope, RN, BSN. We arranged to talk to them, get their POVs and hear their stories.
The experience was revelatory. Inspired by our interviews we immediately knew that we wanted to use VR to bring these stories to life. The technology felt like a natural fit, as just like death, VR is mostly an isolated experience regardless of whom you currently have around you.
Every man must do two things alone; he must do his own believing and his own dying.
What it is
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 around the subject.
Part 1: Confronting the self
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 infrared photography. 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. The theme of transition is subtly reinforced by the environment. Leaves fall, colors fade and as the meditation brings them back to their awareness, the experience transitions to part 2.
Part 2: Outside Perspectives
Transported to a colorful universe, the user now finds themselves in a somewhat abstract space, that directly relates to the abstracts of death. A night sky above and a calm and reflective ocean of water below frame the space, with glowing, rotating shapes up in the air. Again, a familiar yet dissimilar environment for our user. An audio cue informs them that they may select from different audio clips by holding their gaze momentarily over the shapes. The clips are snippets from our interviews with our experts mentioned previously, and focus on anything from personal stories or opinions to professional encounters.
We demoed the project at the ITP winter show, a two-day showcase of interactive creative projects and new technology and the reaction to the project was overwhelmingly positive. Not only did both experts make the trip to see the final product live, but one of them told us that it felt especially validating from a professional standpoint — which is perhaps the highest praise we could have received.
As people came into the experience, our main point seemed to come across clearly and effectively: to bring to the surface the conversation of death and present users with perspectives and opinions that would make them take a step back and think. Without swaying them one way or another, or coming across as preachy or scolding.
Moving forward, we’re hoping to continue to develop this idea and hopefully get it in hands of people that would benefit from it. The beauty of emerging technology is not only all the cool stuff you get to make with it, but the cool meaningful stuff you get to do that will bring value to people’s lives.
For a run-through of the whole experience, watch below: