The Art of Dying VR — Review of an Enriching Experience

Originally published on November 1, 2016 at

Saturday I made my way to the Art of Dying VR experience. I decided to volunteer for a six hour shift and left feeling very personally enriched as a VR viewer and creator. In my review below, I’ll detail the positive takeaways of the experiences I had a chance to sample.

First, the SPACE!

I applaud curator-creators Kelly, Lindsay and Sean for having put together such a compelling physical and virtual experience. I haven’t yet come across such thoughtful physical UX design in the time I’ve gone to VR events. Usually, VR demos are held in very “techie” spaces, plain offices or impersonal large conference halls. This felt more like a museum-quality experience, topped off with personal edgy touches in the dying themed decor that coincided nicely with Halloween. In fact, I would say the VR event felt more like an avant-garde Halloween party thrown at an off-hours exclusive museum or loft than an expo of VR content. I think Kelly herself referenced Sleep No More during my orientation.

It’s worth mentioning the notable number of AR, VR newbies who attended (props to the marketing!) as many did not know how to interact with the devices. There were even a few kids and folks in their 50s-70. That makes me fantasize about how VR exhibition and distribution might actually touch the larger public community one day beyond Silicon Valley, what the mainstream media keeps hoping will happen…

My map of the space

Onto the VR experiences and what I appreciated about each:

I personally manned the CG piece “CROSSOVER, a virtual grief ritual through three rooms” (Gear VR) and naturally, was dying (pun intended) to experience it after helping countless folks watch it. I loved how viewers had to sit together behind representational window frames and share a twin bed while going through the experience, which itself took place partially in a CG bedroom. I am sure the creator might have been influenced by or might like reading Journey of Souls…it was a profound topic to tackle in VR and I was surprised how transporting the good voice acting was.

AR Gallery — this was another station I manned, which consisted of several artist works that were viewable through three separate apps: Zenka, Blippar, and Aurasma. Paintings and drawings would be triggered to reveal more than meets the eye. The visitors were quite engaged, even though sometimes the apps were a bit finicky to activate. Several people I met commented on how much they loved the AR room.

Das Is (Vive)- I got to meet the artist Chelley Sherman and she graciously let me test-drive her piece at the very end of the night when my shift ended and when she was already packing up her equipment. The best way to approximate my experience: Walking through it felt like I was crossing and recrossing dimensional worlds of lines and planes, like I was finding my way through several alternate mathematical universes. She included her family tombstone “Das Is;” the quality of the stone carving and its realistic surface was an artful touchstone in the otherwise abstractly immersive world. I think the fact I could be mesmerized by the intricateness of the planes yet avoid feeling dizzy is testament to the careful, thoroughly three dimensional design. It was complemented nicely with a striking 360 audio soundtrack.

Image Credit: Toshi Anders hoo via Dream Logic’s Facebook page

Transitions (a visual journey on the River styx after death) (Oculus)- This is an award-winning piece that I had to wait a long time for. The high-quality CG animation takes you on a journey down the River Styx behind a dog as faceless onlookers regard you from the banks. At one point, you flop upside down, which was a surprisingly fun jolt. At the end, you leave the boat and soar above into the sky with other flying dragon-fish. Quite spectacular, but one can tell a lot of manpower and resources went into this high-quality Oculus piece.

RoundRound (Gear VR)- As dancers twirl around you, the play of light, mirror reflections as well as the superimposing of images induce you to turn around and around in a (well-placed) swivel chair to take in the range of visuals.

Bardo (Gear VR)- Having read excerpts of the Tibetan Book of the Dead, I was engaged by the choice of the subject matter. I also liked the requirement to lay down on the (comfy) floor to view the experience from a horizontal position. Lying down and experiencing perspectives of objects moving away from you was very powerful and I could see playing with different levels, perhaps in live action vs. animation, to be a very intriguing line of design to develop…

Imago (Gear VR) tried to employ first person POV in combination with CG. I really appreciated the use of a wheelchair as a haptic device. Sitting on the wheelchair, one is all the more ready to experience the VR as the disabled protagonist.

Ceremony for the Dead (Vive) — As it was wildly popular, I waited extra long after the end of the show to experience it. The interactivity was freeing and the colors and designs were pretty incredible; however, in this one I did experience a bit of vertigo, probably because I wanted to go through it in as short a time as possible so the co-volunteer could pack up and go home! Suffice to say, I need to give it another whirl.

Sadly, I wish I could provide more photographs in this post, but as I was technically working, I did not think to document at the same time. I also ran out of time at the end of the night as the stations broke down before I could experience a few others, including fellow Oculus Launchpadder Erica Layton’s piece, Recursion, that was situated in a comfy corner with two inviting chairs.

I’m sure Dream Logic, the originators of this event, will publish some more photos in the coming days.