Virtual Earthgazing - towards an overview effect in Virtual Reality


How can we use immer­sive VR to give people piv­otal pos­i­tive expe­ri­ences with­out having to send them out into space?


We went to the Moon as tech­ni­cians, we returned as human­i­tar­i­ans” reflected Edgar Mitchell after his space flight. This describes the overview effect – a pro­found awe-inspiring expe­ri­ence of seeing Earth from space result­ing in a cog­ni­tive shift in world­view, lead­ing to a more con­scious and caring view on our planet. Experiencing Earth from space first-hand made many astro­nauts real­ize that Earth is frag­ile, with­out bor­ders, lead­ing to a feel­ing of con­nect­ed­ness to human­ity and our planet(see astro­nauts’ quotes). Such an aware­ness shift could have a pos­i­tive impact on our soci­ety and planet, espe­cially if we had a tool that allowed for more people to expe­ri­ence it with­out the risk, cost, and envi­ron­men­tal foot­print asso­ci­ated with actual space flight.
To pursue this dream, the iSpace Lab inves­ti­gates how we could best use the poten­tial of immer­sive vir­tual real­ity to give people a glimpse of the overview effect with­out having to send more rock­ets to space. At the same time, we use vir­tual real­ity as a tool allow­ing us to better under­stand the expe­ri­ence and under­ly­ing trig­gers of the overview effect phenomenon.

To this end, we

(1) design a set of intro­spec­tive, phys­i­o­log­i­cal and behav­ioural eval­u­a­tion research tools to better under­stand the overview effect phe­nom­e­non and how immer­sive VR could serve to induce it;

(2) Pilot these research tools as an essen­tial part of our larger research pro­gram through the cre­ation of a VR envi­ron­ment, gain­ing a deeper under­stand­ing of aspects of the per­sonal expe­ri­ences of the OE deliv­ered through VR, and as a result deriv­ing strate­gies for the design of piv­otal VR expe­ri­ences with the long-term goal of induc­ing pos­i­tive social change in the population.

In case you are inter­ested in col­lab­o­rat­ing on this project, please con­tact Bernhard at

Below is our first video explain­ing the over­all idea of the Earthgazement project. Thanks: IAT344 stu­dent team Joanna Chou, Katarina Shao, Lien Chou, & Sidi Zhong!

YouTube Preview Image

since 2019 we worked on design­ing a VR expe­ri­ence and an accom­pa­ny­ing study that assesses the poten­tial of such a pur­pose­fully designed VR expe­ri­ence to mit­i­gate some of the neg­a­tive psy­cho­log­i­cal effects aris­ing from living in iso­la­tion and expe­ri­enc­ing sen­sory deprivation.

And here is a short project video from Denise about an exper­i­ment from November 2016, where she designed a mixed-methods exper­i­ment to mea­sure levels of intro­spec­tive and phys­i­o­log­i­cal awe in par­tic­i­pants while they explored Earth in Google Earth VR with a HTC Vive. Results indi­cated that indeed, par­tic­i­pants were awed by the con­tent and medium. Below is a short project video and poster for a 2-page extended abstract that received the best poster prize at the IEEE Symposium on 3D User Interfaces (as part of IEEE VR) in March 2017:

Quesnel, D., & Riecke, B. E. (2017). Awestruck: Natural Interaction with Virtual Reality on Eliciting Awe. 205–206.

Quesnel, D., & Riecke, B. E. (2017). Awestruck: Natural Interaction with Virtual Reality on Eliciting Awe. 205–206.
Quesnel, D., & Riecke, B. E. (2017). Awestruck: Natural Interaction with Virtual Reality on Eliciting Awe. Presented at the IEEE Symposium on 3D User Interfaces 3DUI.

Click to view Poster

Denise was recently fea­tured on a Voices of VR pod­cast on “Researching Awe with Google Earth VR: Towards a Virtual Overview Effect

here’s a great video explain­ing the bigger pic­ture of the overview effect and how it mat­ters (by the plan­e­tary col­lec­tive — thanks!)

Katerina recently gave an overview pre­sen­ta­tion on our earth­gaze­ment project in SIAT’s research col­lo­quium that we recorded, her talk starts at 1:09:55 [please excuse sound issues due to WiFi interference… ]

Denise also recently gave a short talk explor­ing the meth­ods we could use to mea­sure if par­tic­i­pants might really expe­ri­ence awe and an overview effect in VR. Her talk is enti­tled: “Are you awed yet? Objective and sub­jec­tive indi­ca­tors of awe, using vir­tual real­ity con­tent” [Denise’ talk start­ing at 32:46]

Related Publications

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)
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.
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., 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)
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., 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)
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)
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.
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., & Riecke, B. E. (2017). Awestruck: Natural Interaction with Virtual Reality on Eliciting Awe. 205–206. (Download)
Riecke, B. E. (2017, September 16). Could Virtual Reality Make us More Human? [Talk]. TEDxEastVan, Vancouver, BC, Canada.
Quesnel, D. T. (2017, November 12). Evoking Deep Connections by Embodying Another’s Reality [Talk]. TEDxESFU, Vancouver, BC, Canada.