The great promise of virtual reality is that it will take you to other places and let you feel new things. With rare exceptions, this isn’t exactly happening, especially with Silicon Valley players dreaming of social media integration and virtual cinematic experiences. But occasionally, really exceptional VR experiences unfold, like Robin Arnott’s multisensory cyberdelic meditation, SoundSelf. Occupying similar virtual territory is Theta, a guided VR meditation experience, the first headset-based VR project project funded by an Individual Artist grant from the New York State Council on the Arts.
With immersive virtual visuals by Flatsitter (a.k.a., Kyle Marler) and a guided meditation written and recorded by Noah Falck, the idea is to see if VR can induce a meditative state with spoken words described as “Deepak Chopra on acid.” Marler built Theta with Unreal Engine over a month’s time while residing in Mexico City, while the audio was recorded and mixed in Audition and Ableton Live. To help produce the psychedelic auditory state, the creators included binaural beats in the theta LFE range, which some people believe can coax the brain into a dreamlike state.
When I step into Theta, which is both a physical and virtual installation, I sit. Within seconds of Marler fitting a headset and headphones on my head, and fixing a Subpac on my chest that creates vibration in response to bass frequencies, I’m variously floating and turning around in a succession of virtual states. The first of which is a white wall, which eventually breaks down to reveal an ocean and beach scene. Marler says this is designed to evoke a traditional meditative environment.
From there I drift into an enclosed castle-like space with a view of the ocean from a balcony. In the middle of the space is a giant Theta symbol with particles flying out of its center, towards which I slowly float. At the end of this particular experience, the emission of the particles slows down, creating a particularly beautiful sensation as the visuals, sound, and vibrations synchronize.
As this vision dissolves, I find myself floating toward an isolated tree in a desert-like landscape. As I float closer toward the tree, the score becomes increasingly dissonant. The final scene is the most abstract, as I drift toward a neon green and monolithic cone. Once I pass into the cone, colorful shapes float in the three-dimensional virtual space.
“For aromatherapy, we mixed lavender and frankincense for a special Moogfest scent,” Marler tells The Creators Project. “The experience takes place within an inverted marijuana grow tent, which is essentially utilized as a private space. I've found that most people that do VR get slightly uncomfortable if they are in a public place, as they cannot see their surroundings, they think they are being judged.”
Marler explains that Theta was conceptualized in reaction to Flatsitter’s previous VR installation SAFE WOR(L)D. Inspired by David Cronenberg's Videodrome, one of its objectives was to explore Marshall McLuhan-esque themes of the blurring of the lines of reality. Flatsitter utilized a live audio feed into the VR, and tried to make people a bit uncomfortable. With Theta, Flatsitter wanted to take a different approach, getting people to enter into a calm, relaxed and meditative state of mind.
“We called it 'avant-garde' meditation as we wanted to examine some of the tropes of contemporary meditation with an artistic lens,” Marler explains. “New age meets Tony Conrad, a spa experience in the sense that La Monte Young's Dream House is a spa. The poetry, written by poet Noah Falck, was conceptualized as an existential guided meditation, and the VR experience was crafted around this poem.”
When I emerge from Theta, I’m surprised at how calming and mesmerizing the experience has actually been. Marler’s Unreal Engine visuals were very often astounding. These visuals, combined with the immersive audio, vibration and scents, made me feel as if I didn’t want to leave the VR experience, which is a feeling I cannot often grant to other virtual worlds I’ve explored.
In addition to the Moogfest, Marler says that Theta was also installed at the Ann Arbor Film Festival, Bota Bota Spa in Montreal and Casper Sleep Symposium in NYC, and will be heading to Mexico City in the fall. The group is also working on a second iteration, which will incorporate more technology and infinitely looping sounds, visuals and 3D environments.
Click here to see more work by Flatsitter.