Can Virtual Reality Make You More Creative?

A designer and his VR Spirit Guide attempt to find out

I’ve moved cities a few times in my life, and each time I experience a “creativity honeymoon,” a period when everything seems fresh and inspiring. London, San Francisco, Chicago… Each time, new experiences and people opened my eyes: I felt quick and interested and full of questions, like my brain had received an upgraded operating system. But then, familiarity would set in.

My travels around the new city would start off as an exploratory spider web, then slowly compress into a thick spine of routine journeys, joining the place where I slept to the place where I worked. So I’ve found myself wondering, how could I jolt myself into this curious and creative “traveler’s mind” more often? Ideally, without becoming a city-hopping nomad, leaving my family behind and living in a van.

One solution occurred to me: virtual reality (VR).

I’d started out skeptical about VR. There was something about the sight of someone sitting with a shoebox strapped to his or her face that didn’t look like the aspirational future. I was also wary of its immersive nature. I like video games, but worry about the time they suck. The hours I spent playing Peggle and Plants vs. Zombies were fun, but maybe I could have used them to write a novel or learn to surf? So when I heard that VR would offer more immersive video games, it was like a doctor saying: “You drink too much coffee? Try crystal meth!” That’s why, even as the Oculus Rift hype spread, I remained a defiant VR virgin.

But with this “traveler’s mind” lens, I decided to take another look. If VR was truly radical, I wondered, could it have the same brain-rebooting effect as visiting a new city?

Finding a VR Spirit Guide

Luckily, there were designers at IDEO who have none of my hang-ups. I sought out Michaël Harboun, a 28-year-old interaction designer from Luxembourg. Michaël has exuberantly curly hair and a happy-go-lucky demeanor, but a darker soul dwells underneath. At an IDEO retreat, designers were asked to share their passions. Instead of showcasing a collection of vintage Braun designs or rhapsodizing about bent wood furniture, Michaël talked about sleep paralysis and the mythology of being visited in the night by demons.

He also had an Oculus Rift developer kit, so I asked him to curate a range of experiences over the course of a week. Michaël agreed to my VR Spirit Guide with an enthusiasm that, in hindsight, I should have recognized as a danger sign. He would curate a set of VR experiences each morning, and afterwards I would do creative exercises such as free-form idea generation, brainstorming, and creative writing. With each of these, I would measure the quantity of output and attempt to judge the originality of the work. With a sample size of one, it was hardly rigorous science, but it would be start.

The first day of our experiment was January 13. Chicago was doing its impression of the Ice Planet Hoth and I was struggling with a persistent cough. After starting the day with a trip to a doctor, I arrived for my first VR session tired, stressed, and full of phlegm.

We met in a conference room. When I saw Michaël holding the Rift headset, with its thick black webbing, I felt a flutter of adrenalin. I’d read plenty of tales of people getting motion sickness during VR experiences and I was nervous about vomiting in front of a colleague. To ensure that each session started from a similar psychological baseline, we’d agreed to start each session with a couple minutes of meditation. I closed my eyes and focused on my breathing while Michaël secured the headset. It hung heavy on my face. He placed noise-canceling headphones over my ears. Then, from the outside, I heard a muffled chime. The meditation was done. It was time to open my eyes.

Losing my VR virginity

I was in a purple forest. Birch trees arced up towards the sky. It was raining, and the sound of raindrops hitting the leaves mixed with Eastern-sounding bells and chanting. Fireflies were dancing in between the tree trunks. I turned my head to follow one, and the world moved around me.

A bad linguistic habit I’ve picked up since moving to America is to say that things are “awesome,” when what I really mean is, “quite nice.” (As in, “It’s the weekend? Awesome!”) This first VR experience, however, was old-school, genuinely amazing awesome. For the first time in my life, I felt like I was inside a graphical world.

I looked up. Where there had once been ceiling tiles, there was now a canopy of branches and leaves. I looked down to where my hands and body should be and saw only the forest floor. I was disembodied, like a ghost. In this ethereal state, I drifted through the forest. It was beautiful and soothing and very purple. Imagine the afterlife, as curated by Prince.

Then I heard Michaël’s voice over the raindrops, bells, and chanting. “We’re going somewhere else. Close your eyes.”

“I’d started out skeptical about VR. There was something about someone with a shoebox strapped to their face that didn’t look like the aspirational future.”

When I opened them again, I was in Japanese garden: a pond surrounded by temples and pagodas. It was bathed in sunshine and dusted by petals of pink blossom. Then he took me to the Grand Canyon, where the wind blew wisps of cloud over an expanse of rock. And then to a tropical island. Although I was clearly looking at computer graphics, and the scenes juddered slightly as I turned my head to explore, there was a compelling sense of atmosphere and depth, reinforced by the sounds of wind and water. But the most surprising part was how it all made me feel: it was blissful.

I was inside for 20 minutes, but it felt longer. When I removed the headset, I felt euphoric. Part of me had expected the experience to be an anti-climax, but instead, it had been a revelation. I locked myself into one of the IDEO phone booths and tried my creative tasks. My first was a brainstorm, with the prompt: “Come up with new names for paint colors.” I was energized, but as I started trying to generate ideas, I found the desk in front of me seemed distractingly cluttered. I tidied up all the Post-it Notes into a neat pile. Instead of making me creative, VR appeared to have given me OCD.

After a few minutes, I calmed down enough to start writing. After generating ten color names (“ Sky Bruise,” “Polyester Beige,” “Hot Satsuma,” etc.), I glanced at the clock. To my surprise, only a couple of minutes had passed. I’d thought of virtual reality as an experience that gives the subject some intense stimulation. What I hadn’t realized was that it also works in the opposite way: by enclosing me completely in its world, it had removed all external distraction. Now, afterwards, that feeling of focus was persisting. Like a lot of people, I’d tried meditation, but struggled to downshift the gears of my over-stimulated mind. Could a quick VR trip to a soothing forest be a shortcut to a productive mindset?

My happy, creative mood lasted the rest of the day. It even survived the moment when Michaël showed me a photo he’d taken of me on my VR trip. I was leaning back in my chair, staring up into space with an ecstatic smile, like Forrest Gump doing an impression of Stevie Wonder.

Day 2: Becoming a Robot

The following morning, I was excited for this second trip, though wondering whether it would be as magical as the first time. My life was littered with experiences where the debut turned out to be the best part: waterslide parks, eating an oyster, shotgunning a beer…

“Yesterday, you mentioned how you felt disembodied,” said Michaël. “This time we’ll try something different.” When he told me to open my eyes, I was in a wood paneled bar. Through the large windows I could see the lights of a city. A neon sign read “Metro.” It was night and rain was lashing against the windows. Looking around, I saw a menu on the wall in French. I was in Paris.

I looked down. Something was different this time: I had arms. Not human arms, but rusty mechanical limbs. I heard Michaël’s voice again, as if from a distance: “Take a look at your reflection.” I looked at the window. I’d missed my reflection before, but there it was. I had robot legs to go with my arms, a giant bulbous head, with blue, glowing insectoid eyes — and an aqualung on my back.

This aqualung seemed appropriate. Virtual reality felt a lot like scuba diving: you strap on a face mask and submerge into a strange environment that’s simultaneously calming and overwhelming. It was similarly isolating: you’re cut off from others and left alone with your thoughts. Michaël changed to the next scene. A forest at night. It was raining again. The weather in Virtual Reality World reminded me a lot of England.

There was a single light hanging from a tree, illuminating a bus stop with some Japanese script on it. I felt Michaël guiding my fingers to the direction keys on his laptop. “You can move around,” he said.

I wandered along a grassy road, deeper into the forest. Having the agency to explore the environment added to my sense of being there. Away from the light, everything became dark and spooky. I turned back to the bus stop, to see a giant grey blob-like creature ambling out of the forest. I recognized him as Totoro, from the Hayao Miyazaki animated movie I’d watched with my daughter. Totoro and I stood at the bus stop together for a few minutes. Then a bus shaped like a giant cat arrived and Totoro climbed aboard. I was left alone in the forest once more and felt a little sad.

“Could a quick VR trip to a soothing forest be a shortcut to a productive mindset?”

I took off the mask, and debriefed with Michaël. He explained that they were just tech demos that he’d found by researching among the VR developer community. But he had clearly selected them with care. If day one had been about relaxation and euphoria, these two experiences had been way more hallucinogenic. Having a body had been weird too: it contributed to the sense that it wasn’t me in the VR world. I actually changed into someone else.

I was supposed to go into the phone booth and do my creative tasks, but I found myself talking to Michaël instead about potential applications for VR. We were both drawn to hospitals, and in particular, end-of-life experiences. Rather than spend your final days staring at a bunch of life-support tubes, maybe it would be better to be hang gliding through rainbows? Or hanging out with Totoro and other Japanese mythological creatures?

Then my phone buzzed, reminding me that I was due in a meeting. I hadn’t noticed time passing, and now some clients and colleagues were waiting in a conference room. As I took my seat in the room, I felt uncomfortable. My mental state didn’t seem in synch with the others. This outsider feeling was partly good: after all, the whole point of my VR exercise was to get the fresh-eyes perspective that I had when arriving in a new city. But there was paranoia too: could they all see how I wasn’t in a normal, professional state of mind? I felt like I had taken a bong hit in the bathroom, and was now trying to get through the meeting without revealing that I was horribly stoned.

Day 3: Ghosts and Rollercoasters

On the third day, Michaël greeted me with a gleam in his eye. “Are you ready?” he said. I nodded, pulled on the mask and braced myself. The first environment was a factory-like concrete space, filled with pools of lava and glowing tubes. I was sitting on a chair with wheels, rolling slowly on a thin rollercoaster track. Each time I turned a corner, I felt my abdomen clench. My brain thought I should have been experiencing g-forces, but my motionless body was disagreeing. They resolved this argument by just making me feel sick.

The rollercoaster track led through several rooms, climbing slightly as it did so. Then, after a sharp right turn, it tilted precipitously down. I gripped the arms of my chair as I went over the edge and plunged down through a dizzying space in the floor. Adrenalin flooded my system as I corkscrewed through the turns. The motion sickness spiked. I started closing my eyes during the biggest turns. Thankfully, I managed to make it to the end of the track without spraying my breakfast over Michaël and his laptop. But was close.

I took some deep breaths. But my Luxembourgian tormentor wasn’t done with me. In the next experience, I was sitting on a chair in a darkened room. I could press a key to turn on a flashlight that would illuminate small parts of the room. But the flashlight was malfunctioning, so would only work for brief periods. On the walls were newspaper clippings, covering the murder of a girl. The father had been accused, but was acquitted.

Suddenly, the door slammed behind me. I turned and shone my light. Nothing. I turned back to the newspaper. Next to the headline about the acquittal, the word “liar” was scratched onto the wall. I was sure it hadn’t been there before. I looked down at the floor. There were footprints, left by bare feet. They looked fresh. Another noise. I spun around and saw a bloody handprint on the wall. And then, just for a single moment before my flashlight failed, I saw her floating up towards the ceiling, looking down at me with a malevolent grin. Then darkness. And then, with another flash of light, the dead girl was right there in front of me. I’m not proud: I gave a little scream.

“Virtual reality can act as a form of engineered serendipity, a radical experience that can pull you out of your daily routine and your comfortable groove of mild emotions.”

When I sat down to brainstorm after this third session, I found that the physical sensation of terror, plus the remaining motion sickness from the rollercoaster, completely prevented me from concentrating. After a few minutes, I gave up and opted instead for a lie down in our wellness room. Once the physical sensations had receded, however, I retained some of the more positive “outsider” feelings that I’d experienced on the second day. And these stuck with me: the cumulative effect of the whole week was that I felt like I’d been on an adventure, and it had pulled me away from my physical location and the routines that I’d fallen into. My “brainstorm immediately afterwards” testing procedure may not have been working that well, but, overall, I felt like I was thinking differently.

I started looking around for other research that might support my subjective experience. Harvard University’s Teresa Amabile published a paper in Administrative Science Quarterly that found a linear relationship between positive emotional state and creativity in the workplace. That matched my experience on the first day.

But what about the less joyful experiences? In a recent paper in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Simone Ritter proposed that anything that diversifies your life experiences can lead to flexibility and creativity. Ritter’s team used VR to test this and got positive results. Their belief is that it doesn’t matter whether the experiences are traumatic or joyful, it’s just diversity that counts. So even getting locked in a virtual dark room with the ghost of a murdered girl might have been good for my creativity.

I emerged from my initial VR immersion with a new respect for the technology — and also some wariness. It’s a surprisingly powerful tool for manipulating emotions and imagination. Whether it was beach relaxation or Blair Witch terror, I experienced feelings in my whole body, and these had a lasting effect through the day.

For me, the biggest boost for creativity seems to come from that feeling of outsiderness. However, my client meeting showed how that outsider feeling is a double-edged sword: even when working in “creative” roles, a lot of our lives are spent in situations when we’re supposed to collaborate with others. Being a robot in Paris was a wonderfully trippy shock to my mental system. However, I didn’t feel like it left me in a good state to work with others.

Unless, of course, we could all get in that state together? I found myself wondering what it would be like to immerse with others. What would a virtual reality chat room be like? Why Skype when you can meet in a forest or go to Paris together? Perhaps a purple forest would be the ideal new place for a brainstorm. Presumably, Facebook were thinking of something social when they signed the two-billion-dollar check to buy Oculus.

I wasn’t alone in thinking about the human connection side of VR. It turned out that Michaël had it on his mind, too. The following Monday, he invited me for an extra session, billing it “as a chance to experience empathy with humans.”

We started off with an immersion into a Black Lives Matter protest. Being on a Manhattan street amid the shouting and the anger felt powerful. I’ve worked as an editor and know how the truth can be manipulated by a choice of quote or camera angle. Here, I could choose where direct my attention, whether to the shouting protesters or the cell-phone-toting observers. It felt thrillingly real and with an obvious application to ethnographic research.

Next, came a reconstruction of a domestic violence incident in South Carolina. The graphics were video-game-style 3D, but the audio was real; constructed from 911 calls. The incident ended with a husband killing his wife and then himself. It was harrowing. The combination of simulation and reality was hard to process. I came out of it feeling punch-drunk. Michaël showed some sympathy by giving me a two-minute “VR break” in a field of grazing bison.

Then finally, and this is a little embarrassing, we finished with some pornography. I found myself in a bed, looking down at my body, while a very good-looking man knelt over me. And then started kissing me, just below my bra. Yes. Not only was I watching porn at work, but I had also become a lady.

This was a moment of conflicting emotions. Throughout all these experiences, there had been the usual competitive male voice inside me telling me that I had to take whatever experiences Michaël threw my way without complaint. But if I continued to watch this in an IDEO meeting room at 9am on a Monday morning, what message was that sending? As the man reached down to remove my red lace panties, I pulled the mask off my face. My jokes about losing my VR virginity had acquired a weird resonance.

Michaël was standing by the door of the conference room. “Would you like me to leave you alone?” he asked, innocently.

At the end of this morning’s set of trips, I again felt nauseous. But this time it wasn’t motion sickness, more of an emotional rollercoaster. There was something about the voyeurism — the sense of being able to see everything, but not be seen — that shook my sense of self. I felt I’d been taken even further out of my normal mental state than ever. Just to be clear: it felt really exciting, but it was also overwhelming.

Creativity is complicated. Sometimes an idea will arise during a period of focused thought, and sometimes it will arrive unbidden in the shower. We can’t control the interplay of mental processes that come together to create a moment of insight. However, we do know that certain behaviors, like visiting a new city, can improve our chances.

The big surprise for me from this week-long experiment was that virtual reality trips feel like an effective new method for getting into a creative mental state. With the right curator, virtual reality can act as a form of engineered serendipity, a radical experience that can pull you out of your daily routine and your comfortable groove of mild emotions.

Personally, I’d prefer to stick to nice calm forests for the time being, rather than murdered ghosts, rollercoasters, or gender-swap porn, but maybe I’m just being a noob.

Next up for Michaël and me: building a self-serve VR set-up, so that IDEO designers with a spare half hour can plug themselves into one of a set of curated experiences, and then record whether it gave them a creative boost. We’re thinking of it as a set of random inspirations, a little like Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt’s Oblique Strategies cards meets Chat Roulette.

Hopefully it won’t make people throw up.

Photos by Adam Geremia