Despite the hype, some things just aren't any better in water. Sex. Skiing. Magician David Blaine. But virtual reality underwater is amazing. It's the most immersive VR I've ever tried. And the reason I love it was coded into my DNA millennia ago.
Spaced Out, an underwater VR experience at the Sundance Film Festival this week, takes its inspiration from the moon. Its audio draws from archival recordings, the beeps and crackles and audible breathing of astronauts who calmly converse while exploring the lunar surface. The images are a highly conceptual collage, riffing on various moon motifs from pop culture.
But even with a flotation belt suspending me weightlessly in a pool, Spaced Out doesn't -- and isn't supposed to -- make me feel like I'm literally in outer space. It's more like a zen head-trip, like you're swimming serenely around a waking dream.
Virtual reality on dry land is already tricking your brain. Studies have shown that VR can make you feel virtual pokes that aren't physically happening, and that your brain appears to thread together a mesh of neurons more like a real memory when you experience VR versus simply watching a video.
Underwater VR goes further.
The Divr headset-snorkel combo is the crucial technology that makes underwater virtual reality like Spaced Out possible. Its creators, a company called Ballast VR, began noticing some curious phenomena when they started putting the headsets on people and letting them dive in.
The most compelling phenomenon, as I experienced it, was how underwater VR can trigger what's known as the mammalian diving response, or reflex. This is the body's involuntary physiological reaction to being submerged in water, specifically cool or cold water. It's possibly a vestige from when all vertebrate life evolved out of oceans, or a survival mechanism for air-breathing mammals to protect us from drowning (or a mixture of both).
Regardless, it's why people have always told you splashing cold water on your face can help calm you down.
The mammalian diving response triggers a number of physiological behaviors, like lowering your heart rate and causing the vessels in your skin and extremities to constrict so your blood shifts to your heart and brain. This reflex can help save your life if you plunge through the ice into a frozen lake. But in the safety of the swimming pool at the Park City Sheraton while you're swimming mini circles in VR, it has the effect of making you feel calm and clear-headed, according to Ando Shah, a co-founder and the chief tech officer of Ballast.
In another odd twist -- and Ballast doesn't totally understand why yet -- its underwater VR doesn't cause the same queasiness that some people feel in VR on solid ground. Virtual reality can cause some people to feel nauseated; while that's often referred to as motion sickness, it's the lack of motion that's the culprit. When VR visuals signal movement to your eyes, but your inner ear's balance signals don't register any physical movement at all, some people's brains (and stomachs) revolt.
But even the most reliably queasy VR users are free of nausea when they use Divr headsets underwater, according to Shah.
Divr is already available to try with other VR experiences in water parks in the US, Germany, Colombia and other countries. (But there are no details on when, or if, Spaced Out specifically will be exhibited again.)
VR typically doesn't make me feel squeamish, so I didn't feel that phenomenon. But I definitely felt a trippy level of placidness once I got used to the Divr setup. After my flash of mild panic passed when I remembered how to breathe with a snorkel, I settled into a sensation of serene curiosity.
Usually, VR demos at film festivals are in loud spaces with a lot of background noise intruding. But in Spaced Out, the water helped block out sound waves I wasn't supposed to hear. Spacey sounds totally surrounded me. And VR headsets tend to be heavy and uncomfortable hanging on your face for extended periods. But the Divr headsets fill with water when you submerge yourself, except for the mask portion protecting your eyes. They aren't trying to float up to the surface, nor are they weighing you down.
It was the closest I've felt to floating in another world.
Pierre "Pyaré" Friquet, the lead artist of Spaced Out, said that was what he was aiming for. "Being in the water with a headset gives you complete immersion," Friquet said. "I hope to create a sense of exploration into an unknown world, somewhere unattainable."
Underwater VR doesn't tap into quite the same biological imperative as sex does, but an ancient evolutionary survival mechanism is a pretty good runner-up. Besides, VR has been an obsession of the porn industry for years. I'll prefer diving into virtual reality that feels like a zen masterclass any day.