LISTEN: Sound Self brings psychedelic experiences to virtual reality at PAX East

By Hannah Harn
BU News Service

The soft tones you’re hearing may not sound like much, but behind the goggles of a virtual reality headset, those long hums influence the development of a unique psychedelic experience. And as odd as it feels to have to trek to a separate location for a demo, there’s a reason to move the experience to a hotel room – it just wouldn’t be the same amid the hustle and bustle of the PAX East expo floor. 

Sound Self is a meditation experience designed for PC and PC-VR that builds on users’ vocal tones to create harmonies and unique visual stimuli. The game takes long smooth tones, like the ones heard here, and turns them into vibrant colors, complex harmonies, and intricate shapes within the VR system. 

“So as you’re playing, it’s not that there’s an end goal in mind,” Robin Arnott said. “It pulls you into a really deeply meditative state of consciousness, where people begin to lose a sense of themselves as being separate from their voice and separate from anything that they’re hearing or seeing.”

Arnott, the founder of Andromeda Entertainment and lead designer on Sound Self, first got the idea for the game almost eight years ago. 

“Some people call them religious experiences, spiritual experiences, mystical experiences, I had my first one of those, and that was a Burning Man […] on LSD,”  Arnott said. “And experiences like that don’t really leave you untouched.” 

After his experience at Burning Man, he began to formulate the idea for a sound-based meditative experience.

“I knew immediately that I could use game design, to and I couldn’t quite explain to you how I knew this,” Arnott said, leaning in. “But I knew that I could use game design to help a person step through the same gate that I stepped through in my oneness experience.”

A year later, he brought the prototype of Sound Self back to Burning Man, and he was met with success. 

“It had people just kind of melt into it, which is what we were looking to do,” Arnott recalled. “And that was probably seven years ago now, and it’s just been about tuning it, fine-tuning it, making it more accessible, adding layers of comprehensibility to it so that you don’t just get dropped into [the experience].”

Once you’re inside, the game is all about shutting off distractions, giving it’s users the chance to really immerse themselves in the experience. 

“[Virtual reality] gives us this really pristine opportunity to totally fill someone’s sensorium, and so we like to show Sound Self, as well, on a haptic bed so it’s like, totally immersing you visually, totally immersing you in sound and also have to be vibrating through your body,” Arnott said. “So there’s a level of elimination of distraction that’s possible with VR that in itself is awesome, but I think what’s really important about that is the kinds of experiences it allows us to design and the kinds of experiences that allow a person to be engaged.” 

Once users are hooked up to the goggles and headphones, the game waits for them to lie down before launching into the world.

“So, when you’re in sound self, you start at the base of a tree, as you’ll see in a minute when you play, and it invites you to use your voice,” Arnott explained the process, wanting to avoid confusion. “That slows down your breathing, it stimulates your vagus nerve. And as you begin to tone, you rise up the tree and the world explodes into psychedelic, abstract imagery. That’s responding to your voice. And there’s music that’s harmonizing with your voice, and it’s recording you and playing you back.”

Beyond a mystical experience, Arnott also pointed out the importance of meditation, and experiences like those in Sound Self, in alleviating stress and anxiety in an increasingly tense world. 

“There’s an epidemic of loneliness right now, and that epidemic of loneliness is met also by another endemic of anxiety and tension, and people pushing themselves harder and harder and harder to be a certain thing, or to fit in a certain box, or to or to meet a certain set of expectations,” Arnott sighed, leaning forward again. “And all of that together, it’s hurting our health.”

The game closes its sessions with two minutes of quiet, with sounds of the night filling in as ambiance as users digest their experience.

“There’s a mode of gaming becoming more and more available now where it actually does deeply nourish us and I think it’s really important for us to nourish that growth and nourish that movement as it happens not only in games but everywhere in our lives,” Arnott said. “Everywhere we see something kind of popping up its head to help us relax and help us come to center. There’s something to pay attention to there. It’s, it’s answering the call.”

This story was written, recorded and produced by Hannah Harn for the Boston University News Service.

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