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:

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Stepanova, Ekaterina R., Denise Quesnel, Alexandra Kitson, Mirjana Prpa, and Bernhard E. Riecke. 2017. “Virtual Reality as a Tool for Inducing and Understanding Transformative Experiences.” Poster pre­sented at the Psychonomic Society 58th Annual Meeting, Vancouver, BC, Canada, November. (Download)
Kitson, Alexandra, Elisabeth Buie, Ekaterina Stepanova, Alice Chirico, Bernhard E. Riecke, and Andrea Gaggioli. 2019. “Transformative Experience Design: Using Interactive Technologies and Narrative to Support Transformative Experiences.” In ACM CHI 2019 Special Interest Group, 1–4. Glasgow, United Kingdom: ACM. (Download)
Quesnel, Denise T. 2017. “Evoking Deep Connections by Embodying Another’s Reality.” Talk pre­sented at the TEDxESFU, Vancouver, BC, Canada, November 12.
Riecke, Bernhard E. 2017. “Could Virtual Reality Make Us More Human?” Talk pre­sented at the TEDxEastVan, Vancouver, BC, Canada, September 16.
Miller, Noah, Ekaterina R. Stepanova, John Desnoyers-Stewart, Ashu Adhikari, Alexandra Kitson, Patrick Pennefather, Denise Quesnel, et al. 2023. “Awedyssey: Design Tensions in Eliciting Self-Transcendent Emotions in Virtual Reality to Support Mental Well-Being and Connection.” In Proceedings of the 2023 ACM Designing Interactive Systems Conference, 189–211. DIS ’23. New York, NY, USA: Association for Computing Machinery.
Quesnel, Denise T., and Bernhard E. Riecke. 2017. “Connected Through Awe: Can Interactive Virtual Reality Elicit Awe for Improved Well-Being?” Poster pre­sented at the 3rd Annual Innovations in Psychiatry and Behavioral Health: Virtual Reality and Behavior Change, Stanford University, CA, USA, October 6. (Download)
Kitson, Alexandra J., Ekaterina R Stepanova, Ivan Abdo Aguilar, Natasha Wainwright, and Bernhard E Riecke. 2020. “Designing Mind(Set) and Setting for Profound Emotional Experiences in Virtual Reality.” In Proceedings of the Designing Interactive Systems (ACM DIS) Conference. Eindhoven, Netherlands: ACM. (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)
Quesnel, D., & Riecke, B. E. (2017). Awestruck: Natural Interaction with Virtual Reality on Eliciting Awe. 205–206. (Download)
Quesnel, Denise, and Bernhard E. Riecke. 2018. “Are You Awed Yet? How Virtual Reality Gives Us Awe and Goose Bumps.” Frontiers in Psychology 9: 1–22.
Quesnel, Denise, Steve DiPaola, and Bernhard E. Riecke. 2018. “Deep Learning for Classification of Peak Emotions within Virtual Reality Systems.” International SERIES on Information Systems and Management in Creative EMedia (CreMedia), no. 2017/2 (January): 6–11. (Download)