What’s it like to truly be in someone else’s shoes? To fly a plane, despite never sitting in the cockpit or getting a license. To experience the terrors of war, despite never enlisting as a soldier. To experience a mental condition, like psychosis (a severe disconnect from reality), despite not suffering from any mental infliction whatsoever. In Swedish artist and researcher Jennifer Kanary’s portable VR experiment Labyrinth Psychotica, players have the literal ability to walk in a psychosis-afflicted person’s shoes. Essentially, an empathy simulator of sorts.
Labyrinth Psychotica recently made an appearance in the most secretive of places: within a small Swedish town’s videogame festival. Buried at Karlshamn’s Creative Coast Festival among charming dodgeball games and Nintendo DS-created techno music, Kanary showcased her “Digital LSD” project to attendees. A freelancer at Vice called it “one of the most disorientating VR experiences I’ve ever come into contact with.”
Labyrinth Psychotica was inspired by a tragedy. In 2005, Kanary’s sister-in-law committed suicide during a particular psychotic episode. In a video interview with Motherboard in 2013, Kanary expressed the gravity of the loss of her sister-in-law, who suffered from schizophrenia (wherein psychosis is a common side effect). “I was trying to understand what that’s like, but I knew so little about her experiences,” said Kanary in the interview.
Longing to help others understand the condition (herself included), Kanary embarked on a research-driven journey to replicate the LSD-esque experience for the non-afflicted. A way to evoke empathy and understanding to something a person might not otherwise experience firsthand. With VR, the impossibility of seeing what psychosis is like is made somewhat possible.
Labyrinth Psychotica was inspired by a tragedy
Projected through a Head Mounted Display (HMD), the experience takes the player through psychosis, step by step. The real world is overlaid with hallucinatory illusions, in a very augmented reality way. With headphones clasped over the player’s ears, they hear voices telling them multiple confusing things in succession. Accusations, directions, instructions that don’t make any logical sense. This is psychosis, drilled down into a singular encompassing experience. In Labyrinth Psychotica’s reality, nothing feels comfortable. Just like the pain of mental illness.
You can read more about Labyrinth Psychotica here.