What it’s like to trip on acid in virtual reality

The idea of technology as a creative form of expression was on display this week at New York University’s ITP Spring Show, during which students unveiled final projects that were equal parts art and technology.

Virtual reality as a mental experiment

Some of the most popular projects were ones that relied on headsets strapped to your face, transporting attendees into virtual worlds. Among these were a dreamscape created from abstract shapes and colors meant to match your mental state, an immersive color explosion that imitated an acid trip, and cardboard creations designed to provide support for whatever anxiety the wearer experiences.

I spotted Laura Juo-Hsin Chen with a paper mask from the movie Frank slung across her neck, as she gingerly placed a cardboard house on someone’s head. A Google Cardboard VR headset was affixed inside the box where the door would be. When looking out, wearers could see the world through windows, as if they were standing inside a home, afraid of wandering out into the real world.


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Juo-Hsin Chen built four different VR masks people could use, each of them tailored to a specific social anxiety. A giant foam puppet that wraps around a wearer’s head was meant to help people feel more comfortable in social situations with other people—in the real world the puppets sits on your shoulders, but in virtual reality, you’re on top of the puppet. The house was for people who prefer to feel more alone and isolated. A “beehive” headset was designed for community interaction, with each virtual honeycomb containing a different video of a person to communicate with. By far the quirkiest was the couple’s mask, a round headset big enough for two people, with silk sheets cascading around the wearers’ shoulders.

“The couple’s one is for non-verbal communication,” Juo-Hsin Chen explained. “It uses a muscle sensor you control with your smile. Inside, you are surrounded by monsters, and it observes whether you are smiling—if you are, they are holding hands and celebrating. If you stop smiling, they swallow you, and the other person has to smile to save you.”

While Juo-Hsin Chen’s project sought to improve the human experience by enabling people to feel empowered through virtual reality, Matt Romein’s manipulated the environment to provide an LSD-like trip through an Oculus Rift.

As I strapped on the headset, Romein warned me it might be a little bit of a sensory overload. Colors and shapes immediately exploded in my vision, as blues, reds, and blinding white light made my legs wobble. It was what you might feel on an acid trip, Romein explained.

“Some of [the experience] is storing a video memory of multiple frames, and it’s scrubbing back and forth between your current reality and what was just happening before,” he said. “Sometimes it’s shifting what you’re seeing left to right, other times the walls start to melt.”

Selena Larson

Well that’s certainly one thing we can all look forward to when we get our hands on some VR headsets—the feeling of getting high without actually, you know, tripping balls.

Music through light

A large, gutted piano sat quietly in the middle of the room, until a note played on an electric keyboard or piano app sparked a flurry of light. Transistors connected to a pin on the piano note caused a bulb to illuminate. Each pin coincided with a particular pitch, and sent a pulse to a transistor connected to a circuit board wired to the side of the piano.

Piano + transistors #ITP

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Creator Andy Sahlstrom found the piano in the basement of his apartment, and with the help of a classmate, turned it into a connected device that not only creates music, but a visual experience to go with it.

“Anything that [has a pitch], whether it’s an app, or piano—it’s supposed to plug into Garage Band in your computer,” he explained. “It would be fun to have it as an alarm clock or a doorbell, or someone can play online remotely.”

Players could tap a key on the electric piano or anywhere on a music app that coincides with a particular pitch. The effect is always the same.

Lizard skins for environmental awareness

Federico Burch cares about the mating rituals of Komodo dragons.

Like many reptiles, the giant lizards must maintain a certain body temperature in order to mate and hunt for food. To illustrate just how climate change can impact the lives of animals that rely on the environment to regulate body temperature, Burch created a heating and cooling system that could theoretically regulate the body temperature if a Komodo dragon gets too hot or too cold.

On a wooden life-size mockup of a Komodo dragon, multiple bags of green liquid were placed on the sides, chest, and back of the lizard. Each were connected by tubes filled with the similar green liquid, and at the top between the animal’s shoulder blades sat a Peltier Junction, or a thermoelectric fan-powered generator that regulates the temperature of the green liquid, equal parts water and antifreeze.

“It’s supposed to be a conversation starter for climate change and animal extinction,” Burch explained. “I created a liquid cooling and heating system that would air condition or heat the animal so it can keep mating and keep hunting. It’s basically a love machine for a Komodo dragon.”

Komodo dragons are only the beginning—Burch hopes to create similar contraptions for crocodiles and other endangered reptiles, too. 

Selena Larson

Each year, students from New York University showcase their projects to the public, and as you wander the hallways and darkened corners, you might notice a trend—students adopt whatever hot new hardware and software is lighting up the press, but manipulate it to marry art and technology in ways that might not be money-making apps or services. 

Instead, they demonstrate the possibility of each piece of technology, and the boundless imagination of the human mind.

Photo via Selena Larson

Selena Larson

Selena Larson

Selena Larson is a technology reporter based in San Francisco who writes about the intersection of technology and culture. Her work explores new technologies and the way they impact industries, human behavior, and security and privacy. Since leaving the Daily Dot, she's reported for CNN Money and done technical writing for cybersecurity firm Dragos.