SoundSelf may be the hardest VR project to describe. Maybe it’s the hardest thing to describe, period. Designed by Robin Arnott, SoundSelf is a sound-guided VR experience that is tailor made to hold you. “If a player’s bringing themselves into it, I want the game to wrap around you,” said Arnott. “Like it’s holding you, intimately dancing with you, and not telling you what to do and you’re not telling it what to do. It’s just this abstract space that extends from you.”
For my demo of SoundSelf, I lay down in a bed within a tiny hotel room buried in the cuts of San Francisco’s most touristy neighborhood, and eased into the virtual, Oculus-powered space. A vibrating pad resting beneath me, I already found the VR experience strange in its immobility. With nearly all the other VR demos I’ve played, even those with minimal movement, I’m standing. From there I’m usually peering, then I’m bending. I’m always spinning around and around to take in my 360-degree surroundings. Yet, in SoundSelf, I’m almost completely still. I can vaguely roll my head from side to side, sure, but it’s useless to try. That’s intentional. SoundSelf isn’t supposed to be an active experience, but rather a passive one.
“The useful thing about headtracking, from a world design perspective, is it creates an isomorphism between your head out here and your head in a pretend world,” said Arnott. “But I don’t want you in a pretend world. I’m trying to shatter that.” In SoundSelf, the experience is transcendent at its best. As you’re laying down, you’re transported to a dark space with neon lights easing in and out of your peripheral, dancing rhythmically to a loud buzzing that’s projected in-game to the tune of your own voice. There’s no physical controller for SoundSelf, only your voice available as a tool to guide you through its psychedelic space—and the louder you are, the more intense the vibrating pad rumbles. I awkwardly hummed my way through the demo, an act that even surprised Arnott.
The game was reacting different to me. Having a higher voice than his other demo subjects, Arnott worried that the game wasn’t “holding” me in the way it was intended to. And it showed: I was visibly anxious, because during the experience, I felt trapped in its kaleidoscope-y embrace. Yet I never felt like I was actively thinking during it; it was more akin to unconscious play. My brain was on fire with frustration while also at peace with its serene visualization of sound. About 20 minutes later, the experience promptly ended. While near-panic attacks aren’t the intent of SoundSelf, I’m not the only person to have had such an anxiety-ridden reaction.
For the more intense experiences people have had with SoundSelf, emotions of past trauma or anxiety brim to the surface—some have even come out of the experience sobbing and shaking, unable to articulate precisely why they were triggered. These are what Arnott calls “bad trips.” However, in what he believes are the most powerful experiences within SoundSelf, are when people surrender to it, and give up trying to pass the game’s hurdles. “It is palpably, painfully frustrating [to try and overcome them], and at some point, they give up,” said Arnott. “As soon as they give up, phew—I see this in people all the time. This anxiety, this clenching of hands, and then [relief]. Those people have the deepest experience with it, because it’s this surrender.”
Regardless of my own or of others’ experiences with SoundSelf, it can be deduced almost universally that the experience is psychedelic. Not psychedelic in a “trippy”-’70s-esque way, but that the experience is a psychedelic in itself, much like the LSD that inspired Arnott in the first place. Psychedelic drugs, as the world knows, alter its partakers’ reality. A “peak experience,” as Arnott defined, is a psychedelic experience amplified to its fullest extent. It’s when the illusion of yourself is separated from the “other” and collapses into itself, and your very core beliefs are shaken. He compared the experience to meditation. “If you’re meditating, what you’re looking for is that permanent sitting of your experience with it and that selfless space,” explained Arnott. “But when you take a psychedelic, you can find yourself accidentally in there for a moment, and you get yourself back. Once you’ve experienced being without self, your sense of self is forever altered.”
Arnott had his first peak experience while on LSD at Burning Man, and it was singlehandedly the cataclysmic event to spurring development on SoundSelf many years ago. As Arnott described, his memory during his peak experience was similar to how the brain reacts to fear, such as falling off a building or having an unlucky run-in with a crocodile. Like with fear, his memory captured every millisecond in that short peak experience, or as he said “you remember it as though you’re in slow motion.” Arnott’s peak experience gave him the inspiration to create a new psychedelic: an unconscious meditative experience employed through technology.
SoundSelf isn’t Arnott’s first experimental project. An earlier project of his, Deep Sea (2010), is another experiment in vulnerability—but not the blissful, meditative type, instead it’s of the suffocating terror variety. In Deep Sea, the player wears a mask to completely blacken out their view as they guide themselves through a claustrophobic, terrifying world of sound. With their senses deprived, the player is left with the perception of being alone—it’s the ultimate horror experience. In SoundSelf, Arnott wants to reverse this terrifying vulnerability and give a more positive experience, like a hug. He’s after one that relates to meditation; one that frees a person from their sense of self entirely.
In guiding yourself through SoundSelf using your own voice, the experience of SoundSelf is led with your own sense of identity. “You hear it and you feel it at the same time,” said Arnott. “So what happens if I can take your voice, and keep your identification with it, but start to stretch it in a way that both feels controlled by you and not controlled by you, and stretch it in a way that has that intimate connection with visualization and so on.” It’s that guide of one’s own voice that moves the experience along. You’re both an active participant and an inactive one. You’re vulnerable because of what you bring into it—your voice.
Arnott wants to reduce the number of “bad trips” people have with SoundSelf. He hopes that in fine-tuning the game that more individuals with anxious experiences (like myself) are able to at least surrender successfully to its whirlwind of sights and sounds, and come away from it feeling changed. As for the experience itself, Arnott mused that it may even be his last project. “As of right now, I’m a game designer, [but] it’s like I didn’t design this game, it came to me,” said Arnott. “So when I finish this, am I still going to be a game designer? I don’t know, probably not. Not unless something else comes to me. Everybody has a different set of peculiar experiences that make them exactly who they are. Being open to whatever that is, to whatever wants to come, and not trying to press upon it what I’m looking for, allows for deeply surprising things.” Surprising things, that is, like the sublime vulnerability that bubbles to the surface in SoundSelf.