Connected through "AWE": creating immersive experiences for social connection


Do you get enough “awe” in your life? In our busy day-to-day lives, we often take our expe­ri­ences for granted. While we have the tech­nol­ogy to con­nect with one another, like smart phones, we don’t nec­es­sar­ily get out­side with nature, or stargaze. Such activ­i­ties may con­sist of common awe-inspiring moments, and we now under­stand that feel­ing awe is asso­ci­ated with all sorts of social and well­ness ben­e­fits. But, how do we get more awe when it feels like our lives are get­ting busier, with light pol­lu­tion that obscures the stars, and when travel may not be phys­i­cally or finan­cially fea­si­ble? With this research project, we are study­ing how we can design awe-inspiring vir­tual real­ity envi­ron­ments that are avail­able for people to try, and what hap­pens to people when they are inside these envi­ron­ments. From May 2016, we began under­tak­ing the cre­ation of a new immer­sive VR envi­ron­ment for induc­ing ‘awe’ in immersants.

An immersant in our 'AWE' immersive VR environment, using the 'Limbic Chair' for navigation.

An imm­er­sant in our ‘AWE’ immer­sive VR envi­ron­ment, using the ‘Limbic Chair’ for navigation.

We recently pub­lished an analy­sis of this topic on The Conversation Canada: “Inspired, mag­i­cal, con­nected: How vir­tual real­ity can make you well”, D. Quesnel, Nov 2017.

From Mount Everest to your child­hood home– what do these two places have in common? They are both places you can vir­tu­ally fly to in immer­sive Google Earth VR and have the expe­ri­ence of awe. We first pre­sented find­ings in March 2017, where we learned that par­tic­i­pants’ awe could be val­i­dated through a phys­i­o­log­i­cal indi­ca­tion of raised goose bumps on the skin, often accom­pa­nied by ‘fris­son’, a pleas­ant sen­sa­tion of chills. Many people know ‘fris­son’ from lis­ten­ing to music and from watch­ing pow­er­ful scenes in movies. As it turns out, this phys­i­o­log­i­cal mea­sure is a great indi­ca­tor of a moment of felt awe, and is even more pow­er­ful when we use sys­tems like VR that involve many senses. In our stud­ies, it turns out that these goose bump induc­ing moments also cor­re­lated with high rat­ings of awe among par­tic­i­pants. Have a look at our brief video below for the IEEE VR 3D User Interface Symposium for more information.

Perhaps, VR could make expe­ri­ences of awe more avail­able to people who need them.

Using our knowl­edge on awe in VR, we opted to create an ‘awe-inspiring well­ness envi­ron­ment (AWE)’ with our part­ners at the Centre for Digital Media in Vancouver. Between the iSpace Lab and a team of Masters of Digital Media cohort, we iter­ated a pro­to­type VR envi­ron­ment that takes an imm­er­sant on a jour­ney through time and space. The envi­ron­ment doesn’t use hand con­trollers or com­pli­cated game mechan­ics to nav­i­gate, and fea­tures a scene that allows for full envi­ron­ment explo­ration, and also guided scenes where the imm­er­sant is led. Immersants simply lean in the direc­tion they wish to go.

Many imm­er­sants report feel­ings of per­sonal con­nec­tion to the guide, which is a mys­te­ri­ous crea­ture of light. During the experience’s climax, imm­er­sants have reported deep thoughts about their place in the world. We have a lot of work to do with the envi­ron­ment, as we aim to re-iterate with our par­tic­i­pants in the com­mu­nity through the process of co-creation. Our goal is that our sub­se­quent envi­ron­ment in 2018 will allow for even more excit­ing, intu­itive inter­faces, and yet more awe-inspiring features.

We con­tinue to work on our EarthGazing research, which aims to study the ‘Overview Effect (OE)’ in VR. The OE also encom­passes awe as part of the spec­trum of emo­tions that may help shift perspectives.


Below is Alex’s pre­sen­ta­tion on “Designing Mind(set) and Setting for Profound Emotional Experiences in Virtual Reality” from DIS ’20:

YouTube Preview Image


Quesnel, D. T. (2017, November 12). Evoking Deep Connections by Embodying Another’s Reality [Talk]. TEDxESFU, Vancouver, BC, Canada.
Riecke, B. E. (2017, September 16). Could Virtual Reality Make us More Human? [Talk]. TEDxEastVan, Vancouver, BC, Canada.
Miller, N., Stepanova, E. R., Desnoyers-Stewart, J., Adhikari, A., Kitson, A., Pennefather, P., Quesnel, D., Brauns, K., Friedl-Werner, A., Stahn, A., & Riecke, B. E. (2023). Awedyssey: Design Tensions in Eliciting Self-transcendent Emotions in Virtual Reality to Support Mental Well-being and Connection. Proceedings of the 2023 ACM Designing Interactive Systems Conference, 189–211.
Quesnel, D. T., & Riecke, B. E. (2017, October 6). Connected Through Awe: Can Interactive Virtual Reality Elicit Awe for Improved Well-Being? [Poster]. 3rd Annual Innovations in Psychiatry and Behavioral Health: Virtual Reality and Behavior Change, Stanford University, CA, USA. (Download)
Stepanova, E. R., Quesnel, D., Kitson, A., Prpa, M., & Riecke, B. E. (2017, November). Virtual Reality as a Tool for Inducing and Understanding Transformative Experiences [Poster]. Psychonomic Society 58th Annual Meeting, Vancouver, BC, Canada. (Download)
Quesnel, D., Stepanova, E. R., Aguilar, I., Pennefather, P., & Riecke, B. E. (2018). Creating “AWE”: Combining artis­tic intu­ition and research-based design for an emotionally-profound art instal­la­tion. 2018 IEEE Games, Entertainment, Media Conference (GEM) (Full Paper), 1–8. (Download)
Kitson, A. J., Stepanova, E. R., Aguilar, I. A., Wainwright, N., & Riecke, B. E. (2020). Designing Mind(set) and Setting for Profound Emotional Experiences in Virtual Reality. Proceedings of the Designing Interactive Systems (ACM DIS) Conference. ACM DIS, Eindhoven, Netherlands. (Download)
Kitson, A., Riecke, B. E., & Gaggioli, A. (2019). Digital Wellbeing: Considering Self-transcendence. ACM CHI 2019 Workshop on “Designing for Digital Wellbeing,” 1–4. (Download)
Kitson, A., Buie, E., Stepanova, E., Chirico, A., Riecke, B. E., & Gaggioli, A. (2019). Transformative Experience Design: Using Interactive Technologies and Narrative to Support Transformative Experiences. ACM CHI 2019 Special Interest Group, 1–4. (Download)
Quesnel, D., & Riecke, B. E. (2017). Awestruck: Natural Interaction with Virtual Reality on Eliciting Awe. 205–206. (Download)
Quesnel, D., & Riecke, B. E. (2018). Are You Awed Yet? How Virtual Reality Gives Us Awe and Goose Bumps. Frontiers in Psychology, 9, 1–22.
Quesnel, D., DiPaola, S., & Riecke, B. E. (2018). Deep Learning for Classification of Peak Emotions within Virtual Reality Systems. International SERIES on Information Systems and Management in Creative EMedia (CreMedia), 2017/2, 6–11. (Download)