Meet the Artist Recreating Psychedelic Experiences with Virtual Reality

Fifteen years ago, Melbourne-based artist Roger Essig took DMT. He's been trying to capture the experience since.

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Sep 22 2015, 4:40pm

Festival-goers try out Roger's version of DMT at Rainbow Serpent. Photo by Adam Taylor.

At the age of 21, Roger Essig smoked DMT and experienced something he's been trying to replicate since. At first he used oil paints and digital media to capture his vision, before turning to virtual reality about three years ago. Now with technology from Oculus Rift, Roger creates intense 3D digital worlds that he projects into VR headsets, and tours his work around music festivals. If you went to Rainbow Serpent last year you might have seen this first hand.

We caught up with Roger at his studio in Sunshine to talk about drugs, psychedelic theory, and how new technology is affording an exploration of one without the other.

Roger in his office. Photo by the author

VICE: Hi Roger, let's go back to that first psychedelic experience. What was it that so influential about that?
Roger Essig: That first time was a massive breakthrough dose. It only went for a few minutes, but I would say it was the most terrifying thing I've ever done and a lot like a nightmare. It was like my whole reality was replaced by a demonic reality, like being trapped in a section of hell. But it still looked amazingly beautiful in its horror.

I don't know enough about it to comment on it scientifically, but it's just interesting that a lot of people see similar stuff on DMT. Still, I've never really seen artwork trying to replicate it, so I sort of made it a life's work to capture these different bardo realm states.

Sorry, bardo realm states?
Yeah, experiments with LSD seem to parallel what was described in the Bardo Thodol, or as we call it in the West, The Tibetan Book of the Dead. In the book it was claimed that when you die you enter into these bardo realms. First you see demonic imagery that slowly progresses to sexual imagery—genitalia, sex organs, people getting fucked, and that sort of thing. After this it progresses to peaceful visions, then more geometric sort of things. I've experienced this progression several times now, even from smoking ganja. Seeing it described in this ancient text, it makes me think that maybe we're seeing an archetype that's built into our instincts.

Tell me how you share this sort of imagery with the masses.
I always tell people how easy it is to create content for Oculus Rift. I got into virtual reality as a non-coder, and non-game developer, but I can create interactive virtual experiences with my own art and animation. Then I can just take my computer and virtual reality headset to festivals and events. I'd estimate over 2,000 people have tried it so far.

How do people respond?
I've had people just absolutely gobsmacked. They had no idea what was going on but loving it. I've had people go from really aggressive to chilling right out. One guy was really just angry and pissed off. I put him in and he was just totally changed. He became just really amazed and happy.

Two thousand trippers sounds stressful.
No, I get off on it. I get off on the fact that I'm putting someone into my personal world and my artwork.

A screenshot of Roger's Deep Dream VR experience

You're now experimenting creating virtual reality experiences using Google Deep Dream imagery? Tell me about that.
Well, Deep Dream is Google's image recognition software; a recursive program that overlays images it recognizes on images that you feed it. It then scans that new picture and overlays images it recognizes again recursively. The classic one is the dog-slug-seal type of thing, but I tried to avoid that because everyone got over that. I looked for a data set that hadn't really been talked or used about much and found a Flickr data set. So for all the hundreds of thousands of images on Flickr, someone had gone through and categorized them and fed them into Deep Dream.

I started by feeding it a black image, so it just iterates its own noise and then keeps doing it, repeating, until patterns and shapes emerge. I then captured that process as an animation.

Why did Deep Dream resonate with you?
Like the DMT experience, it was the actual impact of the visuals—they were so hyper complex, but so focused and in so much detail. It captured the emergence of those geometric shapes from chaos so well, and it was something I could never reproduce using animation. It's fascinating because it would create these really iterative animations that progressively zoom. It's a new way to look at a fractal, constantly zooming, but in a much more organic way.

Some of Roger's paintings

What are you planning to do next?
I'll always just look for ways to communicate my psychedelic experiences with art, and follow technologies that allow me to do that better. The technology is becoming more accessible so it's cool to know that soon anyone on earth can create experiences and worlds for anyone else to experience through their own eyes. I think it's an important development in the way we create art and explore what's going on inside each other's heads.

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