A scene from Amy Louise Doherty's VR experience GHOST CAM. Image supplied.
How can a virtual reality experience affect us once we’ve taken the headset off? We speak with two creators whose work taps into the psyche through the psychedelic and supernatural.
You’ve got to be pretty game to take ayahuasca – a potent hallucinogenic brew which can lead to an intense spiritual awakening in the user. But can you experience some semblance of its potency through virtual reality?
Director Jan Kounen was so inspired by his experience with the medicinal plant, which he likens to a ‘virtual reality experience’, that he attempted to recreate it through the short VR film Ayahuasca (Kosmik Journey) now on at Melbourne International Film Festival. The film offers up an immersive experience that takes the participant on a hallucinogenic trip led by a shaman, and uses vivid and intense colours along with music and chanting to transport the viewer into a spiritual world.
‘I wanted to share that terrifying and blissful feeling,’ Kounen said. ‘For me, Ayahuasca is a testimony of the healing process through the songs and how they are intricate with the visions. It’s almost a documentary from the inside.’
For those who can’t imagine a more frightening experience than taking the powerful psychedelic, Kounen’s film allows the viewer to get a glimpse of the experience in a much safer and more economical way, without the travel to Peru, and vomiting and nausea which accompanies the experience.
‘Taking Ayahuasca is not for everyone, it’s a strong experience that will be good for some and too much for others,’ he said. ‘So this is a safe way to see how the plant works. Of course, it’s not the real thing – that is much stronger and you can’t escape by taking off the helmet!’
So how realistic have participants found the experience?
‘Some were terrified, some were in bliss, and the ones who have tried the plant before were reminded of the effect,’ Kounen said. ‘You feel surrounded by vision, the movement and the infinite spaces – it’s the feeling of being in a world bigger than you.’
Writer and VR producer Amy Louise Doherty hopes her cinematic interactive experience, GHOST CAM, developed for the Oculus, can transport users into the world of the supernatural.
By using gaze-directed interactivity, users are able to spot ghosts and catch them while they participate in a choose-your-own adventure style experience directed by audio and visual cues.
Although still in demo mode, GHOST CAM is being developed for a full experience out next year, so users can choose between experiences which range from fun and quirky to more of a creepy interaction.
While VR can play with a viewer’s psychological state such as in Kounen’s Ayahuasca,Doherty finds the concept of body memory interesting in the way that a viewer can experience somatic symptoms through interacting with virtual reality, even once that experience is over.
She recounts playing a friend’s interactive game whereby a fireball was flung directly at her and shook, once she raised her controller, which acted as a shield.
‘Now, I’ve got this weird memory of deflecting a projectile coming at me, and I feel like a warrior – even though it’s a memory of a CGI world with palm trees and I was in someone’s living room,’ she said. ‘I think your body stores these memories and it makes it stronger in a way.’
Through haptics – the use of technology that stimulates the senses of touch and motion – and sound design, Doherty said audio within a VR experience also has the ability to trigger experiences that affect the user.
‘We’re actually talking about using low-frequency noises in the creepier parts of the GHOST CAM experience so you have the feeling that’s something is wrong – that kind of low-frequency sound that some predators emit,’ she said. ‘We’re talking about how to play with that strategically. I think you can form some kind of memory by using these tools, it’s just depends whether you’re personally engaged.’
For Kounen, the magic of virtual reality is the ability to take the user outside of an experience such as watching TV or a film and put them directly inside a world that is completely immersive.
‘The big difference is that you’re not facing a screen, you are inside of an experience. You are inside the film,’ he said of Ayahuasca. ‘All your senses are taken on the journey and cognitively it’s much stronger than a film. You become a hero-viewer of the experience.
‘Making VR is a fantasy for a filmmaker, it’s the Woody Allen [film] Purple Rose of Cairo. You enter the picture!’ he concluded.
Ayahuasca (Kosmik journey) is on at the Melbourne International Film Festival until August 16.