While short-lived anxiety is necessary for detecting danger, persistent anxiety can cause distress to an individual’s life (CMHA). In response, new techniques are constantly developed in an attempt to reduce anxiety and improve subjective well-being. My thesis adds to this conversation by providing a light-hearted, interactive experience targeted at reducing symptoms of anxiety through increasing positive affect via VR-assisted creative visualization and storytelling.

Excessive anxiety is linked to activity in the amygdala, which is correlated with negative affect and fear (Xu et al. 1447). As a result, individuals coping with anxiety often have higher levels of negative affect and experience the world with a more negative perspective (Margolin et al. 246). To combat negative affect, my thesis aims to promote the opposite; positive affect, which “refers to one’s propensity to experience positive emotions and interact with others and with life’s challenges in a positive way” (Scott).

To promote positive affect effectively, I analyzed factors and frameworks associated with positive affect and well-being. Awe and self transcendence are closely linked to an increase in positive affect and long-term change. Self-acceptance is also positively associated with subjective well-being (Rodriguez et al.). As a result, these factors are incorporated when planning the narrative and designing the experience. Each scenario or virtual world is conceptually designed to feature one or multiple factors. Vision of the Artist takes inspiration from the Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), a process-based approach to psychological health and wellness. ACT is “oriented towards promoting behaviour consistent with personal values and greater quality of life” (Ritzert et al.). Vision of the Artist aims to do the same.

VR as the Medium

I chose to develop in virtual reality because its unique features make it an effective medium for inspiring awe, including immersion, interactivity, and presence (Quesnel and Riecke 2). Experiences that are impossible in reality can be achieved in VR, which allows for greater flexibility, and eliminates the limitations of one’s imagination, abilities, and thoughts, when practicing creative visualization (Quesnel and Riecke 2). This allows for creative visualization experiences that are impossible in real life. The development switched from the Gear VR to the Oculus Quest due to its hand tracking features and six degrees of freedom, which allows the user to be more immersed without the presence of controllers. Metaphysical-like interactions are explored to enhance the experience’s ability to elicit awe as a way to increase positive affect, in which all interactions are controlled using the user’s hands.

The Potential of Creative Visualization

Creative visualization became the main focus because of its proven effectiveness at increasing positive affect. Creative visualization is “the practice of conscious control of mental imagery […] brought to mind from memory and imagination” (Margolin et al. 241). Visualization originates from ancient practices established in multiple cultures, and is associated with greater self-awareness, pain reduction, and reduced anxiety (Margolin et al. 235, Molinari et al. 1452). It is based on the idea “that thought, when under the conscious control of an individual, can create reality” (Margolin et al. 241). The entire structure of Vision of the Artist is designed to emphasize the principles of creative visualization.

Vision of the Artist is inspired by Nick Herbert’s quantum reality theories, which are closely related to creative visualization. Herbert’s seventh quantum reality theory states that “consciousness creates reality,” similar to how “creative visualization […] holds promise that everything that can be imagined is possible” (Margolin et al. 237, 248). My thesis is deeply rooted in advocating this theory and the use of creative visualization through showcasing the potential for enjoyable and meaningful experiences during the process. The experience intends to encourage users to allow their imaginations to take form, and plants the idea that anything imagined can be brought to reality.

Identifying Success Factors

To explore how virtual reality may add to a user’s process of creative visualization, rather than detract from it, research was conducted on the success factors for effective creative visualization. The practice is most effective when the user begins with the right atmosphere and can enter a meditative state (Hurst). Creative visualization is most effective when the user experiences their senses as vividly as possible when visualizing (Hurst). Additionally, the practice is most effective if the user holds onto the feelings associated with their visualizations (Hurst). The narrative of my thesis is greatly built upon these principles. Every scene aims to be as vivid for the user as possible by incorporating a variety of senses, with the greatest emphasis on sound and sight. It is also built upon the principles of goal setting, which begins with self-awareness. The environments are designed to place the user in different perspectives with different abilities. Each world is a 3-dimensional canvas associated with telling the user’s story, to invite the user to explore themselves through their imagination. Visual and audio feedback is designed to encourage the user to hold onto their associated feelings.

Examining Products Rooted in Self-Exploration, Storytelling, and Imagination

DEEP VR developed by Owen Harris, and Osmose by Char Davies are two successful meditative biofeedback VR experiences that are focused on self-exploration. DEEP VR enables users to reduce anxiety and stress through encouraging the user to practice yogic breathing exercises in order to navigate an aesthetically beautiful underwater world. Harris successfully encourages users to use deep breathing as a self-help technique by rewarding users with new sights to see. DEEP VR influences the direction towards a greater focus on encouraging the use of the creative visualization process through rewarding users with visual and audio feedback.

DEEP VR. Owen LL Haris.

In Davies’ Osmose, the user wears a head-mounted display and special equipment to enter virtual worlds themed with metaphors rooted in nature. Like DEEP VR, the user navigates the environment through breathing and balancing themselves in the physical world. Users noted that they often had transcendent experiences where they “rediscovered” themselves after they had completed the experience. Davies influences me to think about how technology can be used to create experiences that are impossible in reality. This connection of travelling between different representative, abstract worlds is a concept that Vision of the Artist also carries. 

Char Davies' Osmose
Char Davies: ‘Osmose’, 1995, Forest grid, digital still in real time through HMD head mounted display

Storytelling is a big part of Vision of the Artist, as the importance of having the player immersed in their role as the protagonist is key to a meaningful self-exploration journey. Concrete Genie, developed by PixelOpus, provides a framework for an interactive narrative game that depicts the player as the hero of their own story. In this VR puzzle action-platformer game, players play as Ash, a bullied teenager who uses art as an escape, and is tasked with purifying his hometown by painting creatures and artwork on the walls with ‘Living Paint’. Both Concrete Genie and Vision of the Artist are based on the notion that people can face adversity and overcome personal struggles with the power of imagination. 

Concrete Genie Developed by PixelOpus. PS4

Mind Labyrinth VR Dreams developed by Frost Earth Studio, is a meditative VR experience that is designed to allow players to explore different environments in the form of an emotional journey. The experience is intended to allow players to explore their own emotions, as reflected in the virtual environment around them. The developers’ objective was to elicit emotions using images and music. They placed sound as the most effective factor for creating a mindful experience by incorporating music created by Oscar-winning composers. This influences me to explore the notion of eliciting emotions in users through audio cues more thoroughly, with awe being the targeted emotion to elicit. I was suggested to explore three-dimensional 360-degree audio, ambisonic sound, and spatialized sound, in order to better involve the user’s senses. Sounds will be attached to virtual objects, so that the user experiences sound as if it is coming from a specific source in the 360 space around them. This results in a more immersive experience involving more senses, where the user can sense what is outside of their field of vision.

Mind Labyrinth VR Dreams developed by Frost Earth Studio