- Big Anxiety Festival, Australia
Edge of the Present was a virtual reality experience exploring the potential impact of immersive technology on an individual's mood, well being and capacity for future thinking. Created in collaboration with artist Alex Davis, clinical psychologists and participants with lived experience of suicidality, the installation saw visitors move through a mixed reality environment where the impact of their physical interaction on the virtual story helped cultivate positive future thinking, a proven and powerful tool against suicidal ideation.
Virtual reality commands more of our cognitive abilities than any other medium. Its presentation of a believable reality has the power to capture our attention and change the way we see the world. Mapping virtual experiences to the physical world helps heighten the immersive power of the technology, reinforcing the believability of the virtual world through tactile experience.
This capacity of mixed reality to present constructed yet believable virtual worlds grounded in tactile experience holds distinct potential in the world of mental health. One particular area of interest is in supporting positive image generation and future thinking for those suffering from depression and suicidal ideation.
In the lead up to the Big Anxiety Festival in Sydney, installation artist Alex Davis and his team wanted to explore this opportunity. Together, we developed Edge of the Present as an experiment into how immersive technology could interrupt negative thought patterns and instil moments of positive thinking. A mixed reality experience mapped to a custom-built physical set, the creative technology installation offered visitors a vivid, embodied experience of positive image generation designed to bolster cultivation of the skill and intensify its protective effects.
Physically, Edge of the Present consisted of a 6x6m room, stark and bare with simply a door, window and office table inside. The entirety of this physical set was then recreated in virtual reality, such that each architectural feature and physical object corresponded to forms in the virtual world.
Symmetry between the real and the digital meant that visitors’ interactions with the virtual room were mirrored in their physical reality. This mixed reality helped facilitate embodied learning, as the physical activation of motor neurons strengthened visitors’ connection to the virtual experience.
Moving through Edge of the Present, visitors found that their interactions with the physical room dynamically changed and evolved the virtual world around them, filling it with light and positive imagery. Each time they opened the door, visitors were greeted with a new landscape to experience. First it might be a rainforest, next a mountain vista, then a grassy field.
Opening the window would further extend these landscapes, transforming the stark white room into a transparent glass enclosure, completely immersing the visitor in this vibrant new world. While the physical world remained the same, each interaction within Edge of the Present saw the virtual world transformed, leaving visitors with a sense of hopeful anticipation.
The way that Edge of the Present blended the physical and the virtual into one connected mixed reality was a fundamental part of the experience. As such, technically facilitating the connection between physical and virtual reality was a key development challenge. While the HTC Vive provided effective user tracking, we needed to find ways to reliably integrate this with all the other sensory technology we needed to bring the experience to life.
For the door, we used a Vive Tracker to capture its movement and trigger each environmental transition. When it came to representing the door in virtual reality, we found that a 1:1 translation proved difficult. Instead, we created a virtual door and hinge with its own physics, which proved to be a more reliable – and believable – solution.
For the window, we initially tried a laser system to detect movement. When this proved unsatisfactory, we designed a rotary solution that could give precise rotational information. We also implemented DMX/ArtNet into Unreal Engine so we could trigger an external fan to simulate a gentle breeze whenever the window was opened.
Edge of the Present was first launched at UNSW Galleries as part of the Big Anxiety Festival in Sydney. During the first month, Black Dog Institute conducted a short evaluation study looking at the psychological impacts of the creative technology experience. Conducted in three parts, the study involved participants with a lived experience of anxiety, depression or suicidality.
As part of the study, participants were asked to complete a pre-experience online survey about their mental health, mood and future thinking. They would then explore Edge of the Present for 10 minutes, repeat the original survey, and finally participate in a self-directed interview with a trained assessor.
Edge of the Present was a great opportunity to take innovations and best practices typically focused towards consumer and entertainment markets and test their applicability to mental health management. It was also an incredibly rewarding collaboration – one that afforded our team the opportunity to better understand the effects of immersive technologies and how we can adapt our techniques to better fulfill their potential.