ArticlePDF Available

Understanding AWE: Can a Virtual Journey, Inspired by the Overview Effect, Lead to an Increased Sense of Interconnectedness?


Abstract and Figures

Immersive technology, such as virtual reality, provides us with novel opportunities to create and explore affective experiences with a transformative potential mediated through awe. The profound emotion of awe, that is experienced in response to witnessing vastness and creates the need for accommodation that can lead to restructuring of one's worldview and an increased feeling of connectedness. An iconic example of the powers of awe is observed in astronauts who develop instant social consciousness and strong pro-environmental values in response to the overwhelming beauty of Earth observed from space. Here on Earth, awe can also be experienced in response to observing vast natural phenomenon or even sometimes in response to some forms of art, presenting vast beauty to its audience. Can virtual reality provide a new powerful tool for reliably inducing such experiences? What are some unique potentials of this emerging medium? This paper describes the evaluation of an immersive installation “AWE”—Awe-inspiring Wellness Environment. The results indicate that the experience of being in “AWE” can elicit some components of awe emotion and induce minor cognitive shifts in participant's worldview similar to the Overview Effect, while this experience also has its own attributes that might be unique to this specific medium. Comparing the results of this exploratory study to other virtual environments designed to elicit Overview Effect provides insights on the relationship between design features and participant's experience. The qualitative results highlight the importance of perceived safety, personal background and familiarity with the environment, and the induction of a small visceral fear reaction as a part of the emotional arc of the virtual journey—as some of the key contributers to the affective experience of the immersive installation. Even though the observed components of awe and a few indications of cognitive shift support the potential of Virtual Reality as a transformative medium, many more iterations of the design and research tools are required before we can achieve and fully explore a profound awe-inspiring transformative experience mediated through immersive technologies.
Content may be subject to copyright.
published: 22 May 2019
doi: 10.3389/fdigh.2019.00009
Frontiers in Digital Humanities | 1May 2019 | Volume 6 | Article 9
Edited by:
Albert Rizzo,
University of Southern California,
United States
Reviewed by:
Carlos Vaz De Carvalho,
Polytechnic Institute of Porto, Portugal
Glenn Ryan Fox,
University of Southern California,
United States
Ekaterina R. Stepanova
Specialty section:
This article was submitted to
Human-Media Interaction,
a section of the journal
Frontiers in Digital Humanities
Received: 01 November 2018
Accepted: 29 April 2019
Published: 22 May 2019
Stepanova ER, Quesnel D and
Riecke BE (2019) Understanding
AWE: Can a Virtual Journey, Inspired
by the Overview Effect, Lead to an
Increased Sense of
Front. Digit. Humanit. 6:9.
doi: 10.3389/fdigh.2019.00009
Understanding AWE: Can a Virtual
Journey, Inspired by the Overview
Effect, Lead to an Increased Sense of
Ekaterina R. Stepanova*, Denise Quesnel and Bernhard E. Riecke
iSpace Lab, School Of Interactive Arts and Technology, Simon Fraser University, Surrey, BC, Canada
Immersive technology, such as virtual reality, provides us with novel opportunities to
create and explore affective experiences with a transformative potential mediated through
awe. The profound emotion of awe, that is experienced in response to witnessing
vastness and creates the need for accommodation that can lead to restructuring of one’s
worldview and an increased feeling of connectedness. An iconic example of the powers
of awe is observed in astronauts who develop instant social consciousness and strong
pro-environmental values in response to the overwhelming beauty of Earth observed
from space. Here on Earth, awe can also be experienced in response to observing vast
natural phenomenon or even sometimes in response to some forms of art, presenting
vast beauty to its audience. Can virtual reality provide a new powerful tool for reliably
inducing such experiences? What are some unique potentials of this emerging medium?
This paper describes the evaluation of an immersive installation “AWE”—Awe-inspiring
Wellness Environment. The results indicate that the experience of being in “AWE” can
elicit some components of awe emotion and induce minor cognitive shifts in participant’s
worldview similar to the Overview Effect, while this experience also has its own attributes
that might be unique to this specific medium. Comparing the results of this exploratory
study to other virtual environments designed to elicit Overview Effect provides insights
on the relationship between design features and participant’s experience. The qualitative
results highlight the importance of perceived safety, personal background and familiarity
with the environment, and the induction of a small visceral fear reaction as a part of the
emotional arc of the virtual journey—as some of the key contributers to the affective
experience of the immersive installation. Even though the observed components of
awe and a few indications of cognitive shift support the potential of Virtual Reality as
a transformative medium, many more iterations of the design and research tools are
required before we can achieve and fully explore a profound awe-inspiring transformative
experience mediated through immersive technologies.
Keywords: virtual reality, overview effect, awe, transformative experiences, interconnectedness, cognitive shift,
positive technology, experience design
Stepanova et al. Understanding AWE
The overwhelmingly beautiful sight of our Earth triggers a
profound emotional response in most astronauts, leading
to a cognitive shift, making them realize the global
interconnectedness of all life and feel responsibility for the
future of our planet. This phenomenon was described by White
(2014) and termed the Overview Effect. This experience has the
attributes of self-transcendence and awe (Yaden et al., 2016)
and is a remarkable example of a transformative experience.
Besides the Overview Effect, there are other experiences that
have similar effect of evolving an individual as a changed person
and promoting the feeling of unity or interconnectedness. For
instance, such experiences happen in the context of interaction
with nature (Williams and Harvey, 2001; McDonald et al., 2009;
Tsaur et al., 2013) or in religious or spiritual context (Keltner
and Haidt, 2003; Levin and Steele, 2005), as well as mystical
experiences, meditation, peak and flow experiences during high
task performance and several other contexts (Yaden et al., 2017).
The emotion of awe is often at the core of these experiences
(Yaden et al., 2017; Chirico and Yaden, 2018). Even though
the terms “transformative,” “transcedent,” and “awe-inspiring”
experiences are not interchangeable, there is a large overlap
between the phenomena they are describing. For the purpose
of the project described in this paper, as we were aiming for
the experience that is laying anywhere within the cluster of
these phenomena, we will be discussing them together, without
drawing a careful distinction between the terms.
Besides being an enjoyable experience (Shiota et al., 2011),
such phenomena can have short and long-term positive
outcomes: leading to increased well-being (Ihle et al., 2006;
Suedfeld et al., 2012; Krause and Hayward, 2015), pro-social (Piff
et al., 2015; Prade and Saroglou, 2016; Yang et al., 2016; Stellar
et al., 2017, 2018), and pro-environmental (White, 2014; Garan,
2015) attitudes, and even improved physical health (Stellar
et al., 2015). The feeling of interconnectedness can lead to the
development of social consciousness, which in turn would lead to
pro-social behavior (Schlitz et al., 2010). However, despite all the
benefits of transformative and awe-inspiring experiences, they
remain rare, inaccessible to some people (e.g., due to physical or
economic reasons) and could be challenging to achieve at will.
Developing tools that could allow us to create environments that
could reliably invite such experiences to happen would greatly
benefit the world on both individual and societal levels. If we can
facilitate the invitation of transformative experiences even only
half of the time, that already would make such experiences much
more accessible, and the tool allowing us to do that, arguably,
would be able to claim itself as a transformative medium.
Virtual Reality (VR) technology with its controllability and
ability to afford sense of presence could provide us with a unique
medium to design for and study awe-inspiring experiences
(Chirico et al., 2016), making them more accessible to the
public and researchers (Stepanova et al., 2018). The potential of
immersive technology to create applications for positive change
has been widely explored in different contexts, see reviews in
Kitson et al. (2018a) and Riva et al. (2016). Researchers explored
the potential of VR to induce awe in controlled lab conditions
through using immersive videos (Chirico et al., 2017) and virtual
environments (Chirico et al., 2018a), and were successfully
able to elicit a self-reported awe response in some of their
participants. Quesnel and Riecke (2018) and Gallagher et al.
(2015) have also used virtual experiences of a spaceflight and
evaluated its potential for inducing awe. Even though none of
these studies observed a transformative experience of a similar
scale to the Overview Effect in their participants, they still
showed promising results indicating that VR, as a medium,
could successfully deliver experiences that can trigger profound
emotional responses such as awe.
However, there is still little research on awe, as well as
the Overview Effect and other transformative experiences, that
could inspire the design of a transformative experience in VR.
Moreover, a larger body of knowledge needs to be build about the
specific potential and affordances provided by VR for the design
of profound experiences, as well as an understanding of what
would someone’s experience of going through such installation
be like. As VR technology and affective design are both relatively
new fields, it is important to not only bring in the understanding
of how profound transformative experiences happen outside of
VR as a guidance for the design of the immersive experiences and
assessment of their effectiveness, but to also develop rich body of
knowledge of how such immersive installations are experienced
by different individuals. This study attempts to contribute to
this developing body of knowledge by describing and analyzing
personal experiences of individuals going through an immersive
VR installation designed with a goal of awe elicitation and
invitation of a transformative experience. This understanding
will be essential for future assessment of VR technology as
a more ecologically-valid approach to conducting controlled
lab studies of complex phenomena and for informing design
strategies, affordances and limitations for the development of
profound positive immersive experiences with transformative
potential. VR technology can not only allow us to “replicate”
in a virtual world experiences that are poorly accessible in real
world, such as a spaceflight, but this medium also presents its
own unique opportunities for creating spaces and journeys that
can invite a transformative experience. For instance, technology
in itself, with the vastness of the data it can connect you to,
can elicit awe (Bai et al., 2017). Thus, it is reasonable to explore
the virtual transformative experiences as its own sub-cluster of
transformative phenomena with its own unique attributes and
processes, but similar desired benefits such as an increased feeling
of interconnectedness, and the benefits for well-being and pro-
social and pro-environmental attitudes that could follow from it.
In order to build this knowledge base about the transformative
potential of VR and the phenomenology of individual’s
experience in a VR installation, we need to utilize our knowledge
of profound transformative experiences to motivate the design
of VR installations and then study the experience it induces as
its own phenomenon. Using qualitative research methods allows
us to develop an understanding of how personal experience is
unfolding and what the important aspects of it are. Then, we
can relate that understanding to the attributes of the design
and the desired outcome. Comparing the experience elicited by
different VR installations would provide deeper insights in how
Frontiers in Digital Humanities | 2May 2019 | Volume 6 | Article 9
Stepanova et al. Understanding AWE
different design elements, as well as the setting and participant’s
background might correlate with particular aspects of the elicited
experience. Additionally, relating the personal experiences of
participants to the design decisions will help developers of
transformative VR experiences validate their design hypotheses
and intuitions, as well as propose new direction for investigation.
To achieve that, for this exploratory study we designed
an immersive VR installation “AWE”—Awe-inspiring Wellness
Environment (description of the development including the
design hypotheses can be found in Quesnel et al., 2018b)—that
was inspired by the Overview Effect and other awe-inspiring
experiences in nature. This installation is not an attempt of a
virtual replication of an astronaut’s experience, but rather an
artistic creation aiming at eliciting an experience that will have
some similar outcomes to the Overview Effect. The Overview
Effect is described as a cognitive shift that includes an experience
of awe and feeling of connectedness to the world, the people
and nature (White, 2014; Yaden et al., 2016; Stepanova et al.,
2018, 2019), so these were the qualities of the experience
that we were hoping to observe in the immersants going
through AWE. At the same time, giving the complexity of
the experiences of awe, self-transcendence, connection and the
Overview Effect, and the complexity of the conditions in which
they may occur, at this stage we couldn’t directly test for an
effect of singular aspect of the design of the virtual experience
on likelihood of the desired experience occurring. It doesn’t
seem to be possible to isolate a singular aspect of the experience
that might be responsible for the desired experience in the
immersants. Thus, in order to form testable hypotheses about
the relationship of the design and user experience, we first need
to develop a VR experience capable of eliciting the feelings of
awe, connectedness and cognitive shifts, related to the Overview
Effect; and then build a rich knowledge of the phenomenological
experience of that VR experience, from which new hypotheses
can be derived.
In this exploratory study we discuss the aspects of the
experience that the participants of “AWE” have described and
relate their accounts to the research on the Overview Effect and
awe-inspiring experiences. This study has two distinct goals: (1)
evaluate the potential of the current research prototype, “AWE,
for eliciting some of its desired effects that have been associated
with the Overview Effect; (2) develop a better understanding of
what are the important components of an individual’s experience
of going through an affective VR installation designed for awe
elicitation, and how it can inform future system development
and hypothesis formation. To develop a better understanding of
the different components of the experience of a person going
through an affective VR installation like “AWE” we performed
in-depth qualitative interviews with participants about their
experience. To evaluate the potential of our “AWE” experience
to elicit awe and ideally lead to a cognitive shift and increased
interconnectedness, besides comparing the thematic analyses of
interviews to existing qualitative research on awe and Overview
Effect, we also implemented two quantitative measures that
could be used for assessing components of the Overview Effect:
occurrences of awe measured through goosebumps extending
work of Quesnel and Riecke (2017) and Benedek and Kaernbach
(2011) and connectedness to nature measured through an
Implicit Association Test (IAT) used in Schultz et al. (2004).
As this is an exploratory and largely qualitative study, we
were not testing any formal scientific hypothesis. However, in
the process of designing the “AWE” installation, several design
hypotheses were made as a part of the creation process. Some
of these design hypotheses are discussed in our paper describing
the development of “AWE” (Quesnel et al., 2018b). Even though
these hypotheses are not directly tested in this study, they
might have formed some expectations that we had prior to
collecting and analyzing the data, that were informed by these
hypotheses. Additionally, in a separate publication, we have
also proposed design guidelines for a virtual Overview Effect
experience based on astronauts’ recollections of it and available
research—Stepanova et al. (2019). Those proposed guidelines
have both informed the design of the “AWE” and might have
formed our expectations for the current study. To minimize our
bias in the analyses, we used phenomenological method that
attempts to suspend the researchers’ expectations through the
process of epoché (a.k.a. “bracketing”) (Smith and Osborn, 2004).
After the analyses and reporting results, we turn back to our
expectations formed prior to the study and discuss the relation of
the results of this study to the guidelines discussed in Stepanova
et al. (2019) in the section 4 of this paper.
This paper makes a contribution to several fields: to the field
of the VR experience design (esp. VR4Good—Virtual Reality
for positive change) by identifying the aspects of an affective
experience of being in VR that can be supported with thoughtful
design of VR installation; to the field of transformative experience
design by describing possibility for inducing cognitive shifts
in VR and how they might occur; to the field of psychology
describing possible methodological approach for investigating
awe, the feeling of connectedness and transformative
experiences, that might be difficult to access, like the
Overview Effect.
2.1. Immersive Experience and Physical
Participants were invited into the study room where there was
a separate “tent” section for the virtual experience and the
preparation area with a table and a laptop, where participants
were signing the consent form and doing the IAT. The “tent
was set up with a 305 ×305 ×211 cm gazebo, that was
diagonally separated with black curtains into the VR and the
researcher (from where the equipment was operated) areas.
Inside the “tent” there was an office chair covered with a
blanket (to suggest the atmosphere of comfort) and some
pillows on the floor (to match the virtual environment (VE));
the outside of the “tent” was decorated with fairy lights, that
resemble starry night sky when viewed from inside, which
corresponds to the first stage of the VE (Figure 1). We set up
the virtual experience inside the physical tent for two main
reasons. Firstly, to create an explicit entry into the experience
space, that would separate it from the formal study procedures
Frontiers in Digital Humanities | 3May 2019 | Volume 6 | Article 9
Stepanova et al. Understanding AWE
FIGURE 1 | A participant inside the tent (with the open entrance curtain) inside
the “AWE” installation. The participant is seated on a swivel chair, wearing an
HTC Vive (2016 model, 2,160 ×1,200 total resolution, 1,080 ×1,200 per eye,
90 Hz refresh rate at 110diagonal field of view) and noise-canceling
headphones on his head, and a goosebump camera on his right hand. Written
informed consent for the publication of this image was obtained from the
person depicted.
space. As such, the stepping into the tent was serving as
a small ritual, that is proposed as a design guideline for
transcendent VR experiences (Kitson et al., 2018b). Secondly, the
tent was creating a semi-private environment where participants
knew that they were not being directly observed and can be
more immersed and expressive. We believed that these two
conditions might be important for inviting the opportunity of a
transformative experience.
The navigation interface used for locomotion was adapted
from Swivel Chair (Nguyen-Vo, 2018), which uses the rotation
and leaning of one’s body for locomotion through a virtual
space. Participants were sitting on an office chair and
controlling their simulated self-motion by leaning in the
direction they want to go, with the amount of leaning
determining the translation velocity in the direction they
were leaning. To rotate, participant turn around on the chair
that can spin 360. The interface was calibrated for the
individual’s height.
The immersive experience “AWE” (Quesnel et al., 2018b)
consisted of three environments: forest, lake and space (see
Figure 2 and a video of the latest prototype http://ispace.iat.sfu.
The three stages of VE allowed for different amounts of
active locomotion:
1. In the forest stage, immersants could freely explore the
environment along the horizontal plane;
2. in the lake, there is a limited range of movement in the
horizontal plane, but the overall vertical direction is directed
by descending within a virtual tube;
3. in space participants were taken on a pre-designed trajectory
with a limited range of movement.
2.2. Participants
As the main contribution of this exploratory study relies on
the phenomenological analyses of the interviews, we were
aiming for the recommended sample size between 5 and 25
participants (Creswell, 1998). We used purporsive sampling
method commonly used in exploratory qualitative research
in order to obtain rich descriptions from knowledgeable
participants (Palys, 2008). A total of 15 participants were
recruited through a purposive sampling method with the help
of our partner organization—NGX Interactive, a local company
that creates interactive exhibits for culture industry. Participants
were recruited within the company’s employees and clients and
are representing the community of professionals working in
the field of culture industry and technology. We specifically
recruited participants who will be able to provide us with well-
informed feedback on the system and its potential to be used
in culture industry for facilitating shifts in worldviews, but
they were naive in terms of the specific details of this study.
Additionally, even though the experience with VR technology
varied between participants, they had ample experience with
interactive technologies, and therefore would be able to go
beyond the initial “wow” response, that first time users of VR
sometimes have. We will be referring to participants as P#. Two
participants (P07,P15) were excluded from the analyses as they
did not finish the experience due to cybersickness, resulting
in a final sample of 13 (7 females). The ethics approval was
granted by Simon Fraser University Office of Research Ethics
(Study#: 2017s0269).
Throughout the iterative development of the AWE experience
we conducted a multitude of smaller formative user tests
with a range of participant populations to inform the design
of the AWE experience. While they generally confirm the
results of the current study, reporting them in any detail goes
beyond the scope of the current study and would not substantially
alter the findings.
2.3. Procedure
After signing the written informed consent form, participants
were asked to enter the tent and sit down on the swivel chair. The
researcher explained the set-up procedure and the navigation,
handed the Head-Mounted Display (HMD, HTC Vive) and
the noise-canceling headphones to the participant and assisted
with putting the equipment on. Participants were instructed in
case of a mild cybersickness to close their eyes for a moment,
and, if the feeling persists or is strong, to notify the researcher
and they would stop the experience. Next, the researcher asked
Frontiers in Digital Humanities | 4May 2019 | Volume 6 | Article 9
Stepanova et al. Understanding AWE
FIGURE 2 | A summary of the virtual journey through “AWE.”.(1) The immersant finds themselves in a tent at a campsite. (2) The magical Sprite creature lures the
immersant out of the tent to explore the night forest. (3) Following the Sprite, immersant takes a leap of faith into the lake, (4) where they descend down passing by
deep water creatures. (5) The bottom of the lake opens into space where the Earth and Sun appear in a dramatic reveal. (6) After orbiting around the Earth, the
immersant finds themselves back in the campsite.
the participant to roll up their sleeve and put the goosebump
camera (explained in the following section) on their arm. Once
confirmed that the participant feels comfortable, the second
researcher starts the virtual experience, and the first researcher
directs the participant through the initial calibration process for
the navigation, while second researcher starts the recording of
the goosebump camera. Then, the first researcher notifies the
participant that everything is now in order and leaves the tent
leaving the participant in privacy for the experience. After the
virtual experience, the first researcher returns to the tent to
assist the participant with taking off the equipment and sets
up for the interview. After the interview, the participant is
directed out of the tent to complete the Implicit Association
Test (IAT) on a laptop (13-inch MacBook Pro). The participant’s
experience in the VE was recorded through screen capture and
the interviews were recorded with a GoPro camera. The study
took approximately 1 h.
2.4. Evaluation Methods
We have used a combination of qualitative and quantitative
measures to help us address two goals: (1) understand the
participant’s phenomenological experience and (2) to assess the
potential of the AWE experience to create conditions in which
an awe-inspiring experience similar to the overview effect (or a
degree of) may occur. As the overview effect is described as a
cognitive shift that starts with an experience of awe and leads to
the increased feeling of connection and responsibility for Earth
(White, 2014; Yaden et al., 2016; Stepanova et al., 2018, 2019),
we included measures of awe and connection with nature. We
didn’t include specific measures of the responsibility for Earth at
this stage, as first we needed to establish that earlier stages of the
desired transformative experience can be achieved.
We used interviews to collect qualitative data about
the participants’ phenomenological experience of going
through the VR installation. Additionally, we included two
quantitative measures to assess two components of the Overview
Effect experience: an implicit association test to assess the
interconnectedness, and a measure of piloerection (goose
bumps) to assess the occurrences of awe. These two quantitative
measures were included as a methodological exploration in
preparation for future studies, that will use a randomized
controlled experimental design, less in-depth qualitative
measures and a larger sample size. Here, we hypothesized that
we will observe a trend indicative of correlation between the
measure of awe and the measure of connectedness (higher scores
on the implicit association test will co-occur with higher number
of instances of piloerection), as in the Overview Effect they are
described to occur together.
2.4.1. Interviews
We collected the qualitative data through either cued-recall
debrief (Bentley et al., 2005) or micro-phenomenological
interviews (Petitmengin et al., 2009). Both of these methods
are designed to help participants get re-immersed in the past
experience and therefor to have more direct access to different
aspects of the experience reducing recall errors that could be
introduced with the use of retrospective measures (Henry et al.,
1994). To further minimize the recall errors caused by the
delay between the experience and the interview, each interview
was administered immediately after the virtual experience. We
Frontiers in Digital Humanities | 5May 2019 | Volume 6 | Article 9
Stepanova et al. Understanding AWE
implemented both methods in order to assess how they fit into
the context of research of affective VR experiences and evaluate
what type of data they will be most effective at yielding. To
keep the study under an hour to avoid participant’s fatigue,
we used only one type of interview with each participant: four
participants (P02, P03, P04, P09) were interviewed with micro-
phenomenological and nine with cued-recall debrief methods.
Each interview was followed by a short set of general questions
about the experience. The type of the interview administered
depended on the timeslot (determined by the availability of
the trained micro-phenomenological interviewer). When signing
up for the study, participants were not informed about the
relationship between the timeslots and interview methods. Each
interview took about 20–30 min. Cued-recall debrief
After the virtual experience, the researcher would help the
participant to take off the equipment, while the second researcher
would turn around the monitor and load the recording of
participant’s experience on the screen and set-up the video
camera. During cued-recall debrief (Bentley et al., 2005) the
participant watched the screen capture of the experience together
with the researcher and talked through what was happening at
any particular moment of the experience. The researcher may
prompt the participant with questions to direct their attention to
different aspects of their experience, for example: “What were you
doing here?,” “Did you have any thoughts when you looked up?”
or “What did it feel like when you went in?”; or to direct their
attention to a specific behavior observed in the recording: “You
seem to be looking around a little more here, was there something
that caught your eye?” Micro-phenomenology
Unlike cued-recall, micro-phenomenological interview
(Petitmengin et al., 2009) did not use visual prompts to assist
the participant with re-immersion, and was administered by an
interviewer trained in the method. The interview started with
a short practice interview not related to the virtual experience
(discussing a moment from the recent weekend) to give an
opportunity for the participant to get familiarized with the
method and what is expected from them. Then the interviewer
asked the participant to identify one or a few moments in their
experience that stood out to them and invited them to focus on
each moment at a time. The interviewer than lead the participant
through the process of the re-evocation of that moment directing
their attention to different sensory and temporary dimensions of
their experience.
2.4.2. Implicit Attitudes
We used the same Implicit Association Test (IAT) for assessing
one’s connection to Nature as in Schultz et al. (2004). This
measure is used to measure interconnectedness—the component
of the Overview Effect. This test asks participants to categorize
words in one of the two categories by pressing “E” or “I” key
on a computer with left and right index finger, respectively.
In the test trials the categories are appearing together creating
either a congruent or non-congruent pair (Figure 3). The
FIGURE 3 | The Implicit Association Test (IAT) screen with congruent
categories pairing and inaccurate response.
FIGURE 4 | Custom made set-up of a wearable camera for recording a video
of participant’s skin for identifying goosebumps and shivers.
results are based on response reaction time and accuracy for
congruent and non-congruent category pairs. The categories
were Self vs. Other and Nature vs. Build with 7 blocks
of trials.
2.4.3. Piloerection: Goosebumps and Shivers
Piloerection observed in a form of goosebump or shivers can be
used as a physiological marker of awe (Benedek and Kaernbach,
2011; Quesnel and Riecke, 2017). A “goosebump camera” (see
Figure 4) was placed on participant’s arm to record a video
of their skin during the experience. The researcher helped
participant to put on the camera and adjusted the focal distance
from the camera to the skin for the best clarity of image.
Video recording from the camera was manually synchronized
with the screen recording of participant’s experience for
future alignment.
Frontiers in Digital Humanities | 6May 2019 | Volume 6 | Article 9
Stepanova et al. Understanding AWE
2.5. Analyses
2.5.1. Interview Thematic Analyses
The interviews were transcribed and analyzed in NVivo.
Even though some of the data was collected with micro-
phenomenological interviews, we didn’t perform a micro-
phenomenological analyses for this study, but analyzed all of
the interviews through the same phenomenolgical method. First,
two researchers independently went through the transcripts,
identified meaning units and combined them into higher level
themes. The two researchers then compared and discussed the
themes, they have identified, to agree upon one set of themes.
Then the researcher went back to NVivo and proceeded with
coding. To minimize the researcher’s bias in interpreting the data
we used “bracketing” and a bottom-up coding approach similar
to interpretive phenomenology analyses (Smith and Osborn,
2004) and looked for themes that naturally emerge from the
data instead of coding for the specific themes of interest. We
present the summary of the distribution of all themes, however,
in the interest of space, we will only report in detail on the most
prominent and relevant themes.
2.5.2. Implicit Association Test
We calculated IAT effect D scores of strength of association based
on a standard algorithm for IAT (Wittenbrink and Schwarz,
2007). D scores have a possible range of -2 to +2. According to
standard conventions we identified the strength of connection
in accordance with the following break points: “slight” - (0.15
≤ |D|<0.35), “moderate” - (0.35 ≤ |D|<0.65); and “strong” -
(0.65 ≤ |D|).
2.5.3. Goosebumps and Shivers
The video recordings from goosebumps camera were
independently manually coded by two researchers to identify
moments of goosebumps or shivers. Moments of goosebumps
are visually evident from hairs erecting, with the appearance of
raised bumps on the skin. Shivers have less prominent raised
bumps, but they are evident from micro-movements of muscles
under the skin that visually look like a wave lifting the hairs
up slightly.
The first two section of the results report on quantitative data,
and the following discuss the interview data. First, we present the
interview data based on the thematic analyses. After, we present
the analyses of categories of emotions related to awe based on
a hermeneutical analyses reported in Gallagher et al. (2015) and
compare it to the results observed in Quesnel and Riecke (2018),
that used Google Earth VR.
3.1. Implicit Association Test
Mean D score across all participants was 0.46 (SD = 0.54), which
indicates a moderate strength of positive connection between Self
and Nature. Nine participants had a moderate to strong positive
connection (M= 0.78, SD = 0.23), two participants had slight or
moderate negative connection (M=0.39, SD = 0.25), and two
participants had neutral scores (M=0.11, SD = 0.0015).
FIGURE 5 | The moment of shivers: aligned recording from the goosebump
camera and screen recording from the HMD showing the Earth scene with the
sun appearing from behind it.
To give context to our observed results, we compared our
results to to D-scores obtained on the same IAT test by Schultz
and Tabanico (2007), who observed an average 0.40 score
between 60 undergraduate psychology students and 0.45 between
121 park visitors in California, we can speculate that possibly
the effect of our virtual experience is similar to the effect of
walking in the park in terms of one’s implicit connection with
nature. However, the sample sizes and the context in which the
measures were conducted were widely different, and therefor a
strong comparison is not possible.
3.2. Shivers
In this study we observed one moment of shivers in one
participant, when the participant was observing the sun revealing
behind the dark Earth. The Figure 5 illustrates the moment when
the shivers occurred.
3.2.1. Thematic Interview Analyses
Table 1 summarizes all the themes observed and coded in the
data. We are setting the usability and design related comments
aside, as they are outside of the scope of this paper and will be
reported separately. We are reporting on the most prominent and
relevant themes to this paper, specifically: emotions and feelings,
body-centric sensations and embodiment, familiarity and novelty
(role of the personal background) and cognitive mini-shifts.
These themes are highlighted in the Table 1 and their frequencies
are summarized in Figure 6.
3.2.2. Emotions and Feelings Curiosity and wonder
After “cool,” “interesting,” and “pretty,“curiosity” was the most
frequent affect related word used by participants. Curiosity and
wonder were positive emotions driving participants’ exploration
behavior: “Another sense of delight: Oh it’s a lake! Not knowing
what’s gonna happen. Do I just look at the lake? But when I break
through the lake its quite a sense of wonder: oh, that’s quite lovely!
(P08). The properties of the environment, specifically some level
of mysteriousness or the “unknown-ness” of it, were inspiring
Frontiers in Digital Humanities | 7May 2019 | Volume 6 | Article 9
Stepanova et al. Understanding AWE
TABLE 1 | Comprehensive summary of themes coded in the interview data, with the prominent themes reported in this chapter bolded.
Emotions and Feelings Affects Positive
Emotional states Fear/Discomfort
Immersion and Engagement
Bodily sensations Internal bodily reactions
Cognitive shifts and Processes Mini-shifts Connectedness
Renewed conceptual knowledge
Vastness and small-self
Intent of behavioral change
Processes Anticipation
States and Constructs Experiential vs. Analytical
Presence (“being there”)
Acts & Intents Orienting Anchoring
“Where am I?”
Seeking a goal
Justifying/Making sense
Inner tensions and debates Exploring vs. Following
“Taking it in” vs. Goal-oriented
Thinking of/testing the system Fear to miss something
Pushing to the edge
Trying to predict what is coming
External (to the system) factors Personal background Familiarity vs. Novelty
Love or hate of the environment
Comparing to other mediums
Expectation Participant bias
Realistic representation
System/Experience design Usability Navigation Interface
Quality of models
Physical space and objects
Narrative Transitions
Sprite character
Attributes of the environment Lighting
Open vs. Claustrophobic
Realistic vs. magical
the curiosity: “I was just curious about the environment. The
environment felt deep. It reminded me the Truman show, where
you have the bubble that you can explore.” (P06), but at same time
inducing some level of fear: “It’s really a lot of curiosity and I guess
nervousness.” (P11).
The novelty and new perspectives were also contributing
to curiosity: “I am enjoying the curiosity. I guess I was
more interested in looking at the Earth, from this vantage
point. I enjoyed looking at the space in reference to the
Earth” (P05).
Frontiers in Digital Humanities | 8May 2019 | Volume 6 | Article 9
Stepanova et al. Understanding AWE
FIGURE 6 | The number of participants (total = 13), that had statements coded with themes reported in this paper. Safety and fear
Most of participants (N= 8) were distinguishing two states
in relation to the environment: comfortable and safe vs.
uncomfortable and scary. Safety. The majority (N= 11) considered the first
environment, the forest, and especially the tent to be safe and
comforting: “the whole set up of the tent, and what I saw here...
as a tent was really, like, I felt safe. I felt the tent provided a
safe starting spot for me to start to going into the outside world.
(P01). When aiming to achieve a transformative experience in
VR, we believed that it was important to have a safe starting
point, to help participants trust the system to take them on a
potentially emotional journey and help them be more open to
this experience. If the medium is not allowing participants to
feel comfortable within it, they will likely be more resistant and
closed-off from the experience. The physical and the virtual tent
appeared to successfully serve that function for most participants.
It was also important to conclude the experience with a safe
environment. Here participant describes the last transition and
coming back into the tent: “this again is much more familiar, I
do this every day kind of thing. It was comforting. Probably in
a weird way one of the most comforting parts” (P05). And since
participants already developed some connection and familiarity
with that environment, it was even more likely to elicit a sense of
comfort: “Cozy. I felt like I was home, even though it’s a temporary
home. Daylight, so it’s more comforting” (P06). Fear. Fear, was probably one of the strongest and most
interesting emotional reactions observed. Participants reported
being a little “scared,” “nervous,” “uncomfortable,” or “anxious,
which was usually associated with the jump into or descend in
the water, or, in a few cases, with walking through the dark
forest. Both, the act of jumping of a height and the descend
into the deep water was uncomfortable for some participants:
“Then I looked down and I see everything is dark, so for me it
was .. I don’t know how to explain.. it was just uncomfortable
a little bit.. somewhere you are in the water and everything is
dark and you are going down” (P09). This was also the transition
into the lake where the locomotion was more restricted than
in the forest, that increased the level of fear:“I know that if I
jump into the lake I can get out as fast as I can, and it’s up
to me, but I felt like jumping in with the weights attached to
your ankle—I am not in control of this situation and it doesn’t
make me feel comfortable. I am being lead. I don’t want to be
lead” (P06). This also relates to the role of the sense of agency
in the environment, the loss of which was often undermining
participant’s enjoyment.
There were many strong bodily reactions to the jump and
descend into the lake in the VE, that was surprising and in
some way profound for the participants: “I felt a shock. It felt
like I was choked. That surprised me. It was not just like “Oh
that was kind of weird,” I did feel like someone poked me or
something. I felt an actual zap to myself, a tension, that I wasn’t
expecting.” (P05)
Frontiers in Digital Humanities | 9May 2019 | Volume 6 | Article 9
Stepanova et al. Understanding AWE
The strategies participants used to cope with this fear were: (1)
dissociate from the experience and bring yourself to the analytical
level: “Mentally overwrote back that this is just the experience.
(P06), (2) find a comforting point of reference: “There is fish,
which is a comforting reference point in this black void. Trying to
follow the light.” (P05), and (3) just wait for it to pass: “I noticed
myself clutching my hands. I am not comfortable, I am just going
to wait it out until it goes away” (P06). Other affects
A distribution of positive and negative valence affects were
observed. Negative affects were coming through two main
sources: (1) usability issues were causing frustration and
inability to explore something of interest was causing
disappointment and (2) some parts of the environment
were causing nervousness, anxiety or fear, discussed in the
sections below. Positive affects could be categorized into the
following groups: excitement, inner peace and appreciation
of beauty. Excitement. Participants were describing their
experience as “fun,” “exciting,” “wow.” These affects were often
related to the visual and audio attributes of the environment:
The sun was really exciting, because it is bright. There is music
attached to it obviously, other than just my vision, it was also
creating that kind of excitement. Bright and exciting” (P04); or to
an interest and anticipation: “When I first looked around I was
kind of hoping I would get to go in there, an when I saw that you
can, there was a bit of excitement that I can go and explore the
forest around. During that time I was actually looking around a
lot. It was kind of immersive, it was fun” (P03).
Another aspect of the experience that seemed to elicit excitement
was the vertical dimension, which is opening a novel perspective.
Often, when looking up: “I kept looking up and thinking how far
down am I. It was pretty neat, it was cool” (P13) or down: “So I
didn’t look down that much, but when I did, it was kind of fun and
kind of scarier than looking elsewhere” (P04) participants would
describe themselves being more engaged and excited. While the
lack of vertical dimension of gaze direction they considered
to be the evidence of low engagement: “I wasn’t inclined to
look up and down, I was looking more left and right, more like
if you are in museum or something and you’re kinda looking
around” (P03). Inner peace. Participants reported feeling relaxed and
peaceful. The soundtrack appeared to significantly contribute to
it: “It was very peaceful and soundtrack was nice and reminded me
of nature and being in the forest” (P08), which was also helping
with coping with anxiety from jumping into the lake: “The sound
was calming, just seeing fish and seeing the opening above me made
me feel a little more relaxed” (P09). Appreciation of beauty. Participants described the
beauty of the elements of the experience and how it made
them feel delighted or appreciative. Both, the mystical and
novel environments like the nebula: “There is something about
it that I can’t define. Because I know these are asteroids and
that’s probably a planet of some sort but then the fog is like
Awww.’” (P01) and familiar natural beauty of the forest: “I
like lakes, particularly because I can see the mountains and
the sky behind it, so I wanted to look closer <...>I liked
it, I can just sit there and look” (P06), as well as the beauty
of the image of our planet: “It’s just visually really striking.
And again, familiar because you’ve seen images like that. And,
the contrast between the dark and the light is really nice.
(P12)—were all eliciting moments of appreciation and delight
in participants.
3.2.3. Familiarity and Novelty Relation to emotions
The feeling of safety or fear as well as curiosity and wonder seem
to often be related to the feelings of familiarity and novelty. The
first environment of a campsite in a forest was familiar to most
participants, and associated with positive emotions, which let
them feel comfortable going into the environment. “It’s a very
familiar place. It’s a tent, and there’s a bonfire. There might be
other people there. I chose to come here. I chose to be here and
setup a tent and sleep in a tent” (P01). Moreover, throughout the
virtual experience, participants will form new connections with
elements of the environment and use them to bring themselves
back to the state of comfort in the parts that felt scary to them:
. . . for my one comfort: ‘ here is the light, follow the light, here
are some fish, I am being sort of acclimatized here’—that time
helped” (P05)
While usually familiar environments were providing a sense
of comfort, for other participants, they appeared less engaging.
Contrary, novel environments were stimulating curiosity,
wonder and excitement. Here a participant is at the end of the
lake scene: “It felt like ‘oh cool!’—Its not something you would
normally be able to see, where is in the previous environment—I
have gone camping before, so I get it. But here I am thinking this is
cool, its really creative, really beautiful to see the stars through the
water”(P08). For some participants it was easier to accept and get
immersed in more novel environments, they wouldn’t have had
a concept for, while having a compelling familiar environment
seemed more challenging:
It is neat to explore a perspective on the world that you would have
none of <...>Where is when anything that is too familiar, because
I am so in-tune with how I walk and how that feels, so you have
that disconnect <...>Where in space—I have no context for that.
So okay, this is how I would float in space, fair enough, I have no
other way of knowing it. (P02) Anchoring
The act of cognitive anchoring to a familiar place was quite
prominent, and it was not only used as a coping mechanism
against anxiety and discomfort provoking environments, but also
to orient oneself: “I saw the sun and recognized it, and quickly
after that I saw the Earth, so there was a relation there—I knew
where I was for the first time in the experience. Not that I haven’t
been in a tent before, that was quite familiar. But there I for sure
knew where I was.” (P04) and to connect with the environment
in a more meaningful way: “This is kinda of an interesting angle
of North America and South America. I have a colleague, who is
Frontiers in Digital Humanities | 10 May 2019 | Volume 6 | Article 9
Stepanova et al. Understanding AWE
working in Columbia right now, so I am trying . . . I am putting
real people I know” (P05). Importance of individual variables and background
We were surprised to observe polarly different responses from
our participants within such a fairly simple experience, with a
fairly consisted journey. Each of the stages and transitions in
the experience has produced opposing responses from love to
hate and from relaxation and peacefulness to excitement or fear.
This distribution of reactions has stressed the significance of
participant’s individual background.
The lake environment was the most striking example of
opposing experiences participants were having and its relation
to their background. One participant describes her delight in
that stage: “I just love the water, and so going into the water
was quite delightful. Happiness, familiarity, for me not too
calm, but connectedness to nature in that way” (P08). While
another participant had a very different reaction to the same
environment: “A little worried. I don’t like deep water. A little
anxious. Okay, we got to go over to the lake, I hope we stay above
it” (P06). Transition into the lake as well, which was reported to
be one of the most memorable moments by most participants,
elicited opposing reaction depending on personal background:
an uncomfortable anticipation and anxiety by one participant:
“coming down the little ledge to go in the water.. that was kind
of .. I was a little bit hesitant before, because I don’t normally like
jumping into the water from height. Or jumping from height in
general. That feeling scares me a little bit(P09), while another
participant had a positive anticipation and excitement coming up
to that transitions: “I realized that okay, I am going down to the
water, so perfect. This is great. <...>I was a little stoked, cause
thats the direction where I wanted to go <...>I was a little bit
timed here: Am I supposed to jump in here? <...>then I went for
it” (P11), this participant later mentioned being a cliff-jumper.
Another important influence on the experience was coming
from the video-games experience, that participants had, that
was both helping them with navigation: “I have a little bit of a
gaming background so I am sort of very comfortable with this first-
person movement through virtual space” (P13), and setting up an
expectation to have a goal: “ it reminded me of old video games
where there is like a mission or something, I wouldn’t necessarily do
that mission and I would end up going off somewhere else” (P10).
3.2.4. Body-Centric Sensations and Embodiment Jump into the water
As discussed in the section on safety and fear, the transition
into the water environment, that was inviting participants to
jump into the lake, was inducing strong reactions in participants’
bodies. They were describing clutching their hands, tensing up
their muscles and holding their breath: “all your muscles constrict,
or contract, so it’s almost like you are trying to hold yourself tight,
so when you get that cold, you can release it once you hit the water
(P02). This tension was often followed by a release and relaxation,
when “hitting the water”: “the body just kind of tense up, and you
just kind of . . . just kind of muscles release . . . As soon as I got in the
water” (P09). Weightlessness
Interestingly, that feeling of release might have facilitated the
feeling of floating or weightlessness. Here a participant describes
the moment when that release happened:
That’s weird, because, on the ground, up to that transition, I am
super conscious of how I am sitting on a chair, and that kind of
leaning forward is feeling a little awkward. . . But in that second
I didn’t feel the. . . And that’s what I kind of loved too, is how, I
had no idea you could reproduce that, give that sense that you are
weightless, suddenly I wasn’t conscious of my body pressing into the
Earth. (P02)
For a different participant a similar moment of release leading to
the sense of weightlessness happened in the transition into the
space: “When I was in the water I felt like I was not in control
and I was weighted down, like if I had weights around my ankles,
where is when I was transitioning into the night sky it felt like the
opposite: the weights are off the ankles, you are weightless” (P06).
This participant was afraid of the water environment, and even
though that transition into space produced less internal bodily
responses for most participants than the transition into water,
the psychological release of letting go of the fear still lead this
participant to experience the illusion of weightlessness.
It was interesting to observe that 6 participants have
mentioned floating or the feeling of weightlessness. It might
not have been a strong bodily feeling for everyone, but it is
encouraging to see that even with a simple hands-free leaning-
based interface through a design of the storyline and the visuals,
we were able to elicit some level of the feeling of weightlessness
without submersing participants in a flotation tank [which would
be a more literal induction of the feeling of weightlessness, for
instance, planned by SpaceVR for 2018 Burning Man festival
(Bonasio, 2018)]. Connect and disconnect between mind and body
Imaginative immersion in combination with sensory immersion
(Ermi and Mäyrä, 2005) when achieved successfully creates a
condition in which participants experience a disconnect between
their mind and body. Participants discuss these moments of
disconnect, and having their perceptions overridden by their
imagination as the optimal moments of their experience: “It was
a bit more of the imagination and just like the feeling of being in
warm water and submerging and yet not worrying about the panic
of not being able to breath, and just something about that, that
I quite liked. And maybe it’s because I didn’t feel this [points at
different parts of his body], right?” (P02). While the moments,
in which the conflict between the physical body position and
the virtual position became apparent, lead to frustration and
disappointment: “You start unpacking, okay, so you have this
goggles, the audio here, and my arms and legs just feel static
and crossed, how does that connect? Because that feels weird,
when you come back to your body and then realize that it is a
stagnate lump going through this [points at where HMD would
have been](P02). It would be interesting to investigate how
this connect/disconnect transitions are being triggered. In case
of this participant, he had this desired disconnect during the
Frontiers in Digital Humanities | 11 May 2019 | Volume 6 | Article 9
Stepanova et al. Understanding AWE
lake stage that was initiated by a visceral jump into the lake and
then “something broke the spell” (P02) when transition into the
space happened. For him, the transition into the space came as
a surprise and did not make sense. For a different participant,
the conflict was the result of not having an avatar representation
in the VE: “I felt a bit disconnected from my body, because
when I look down I don’t see my body, and usually its there,
obviously” (P04). Reflexes and vection
Vection (an illusion of self-motion) and reflexes are often
perceived as an indicator of how immersive and “believable” the
experience was by participants.
For example, a participant describes descending down in the
lake: “I see the sparkles, <...>I realized that they are kind of like
surrounding me, thats when I really got the sense of the descent
down. The closest I can compare it to is when you are going
down a roller coaster, but it wasn’t that intense, it was more calm
kind of feeling” (P03) and then going into space: “As soon as the
movement started, it kind of again felt a bit more immersive, the
floating feeling came back again” (P03). The lack of self-motion
illusion for some participants in space combined with restricted
locomotion might have also contributed to some of them feeling
as if they are watching a movie instead of participating.
Sometimes, participants would also report having a reflex
in reaction to an event in the VE: for example, when the sun
appeared, a participant was surprised and reported: “I am pretty
sure I jumped.” (P05) while another participant mentioned: “I
found the sun pretty bright, almost wanted to put my hand
up. But yeah, this is neat.” (P10). While putting the hand up
to protect one’s eyes wouldn’t have worked with an HMD, a
different participant adopted her reflexes from diving to the VR
equipment: “because I’m a diver I felt like I’m descending, there
was one point were I adjusted my face but it’s a bit like adjusting
your regulator.” (P14). This type of behavior could potentially
indicate how “real” the experience was for the participants at
that moment.
This “realness” and “being there” of the experience, that is
indicated by multidimensional responses, including your internal
body feelings and actions, are likely an important precursor to
the possibility of transformative experience that could lead to
cognitive shifts. For instance “presence,” which is often described
as the feeling of “realness” or “being there” in a virtual experience
was shown to correlate with a stronger effect of the virtual
experience on the following real-world behavior (Fox et al., 2009;
Rosenberg et al., 2013).
3.2.5. Cognitive Mini-Shifts
As the ultimate goal of this project is to evaluate if VR experiences
can be designed to elicit positive cognitive shifts similar to
the Overview Effect and other awe-inspiring transformative
experiences, we were excited (and a little surprised) to see some
indication of some minor cognitive shifts voluntarily described in
the interviews. Participants themselves were also intrigued by the
shift in perspective resulted from their experience, even when the
shift was in the perception of seemingly simple concepts:
I kinda compared that sort of spatial environment that I was in with
all of the representations of space that we get used to, which is a
very 2D item, the solar system prospective. And that difference, that
being in it, and that way how it altered my sense of that relational
space of one celestial body to another, that was really cool actually
how it changed something in my mind slightly. (P13) Day and night
Four participants found the concept of day and night happening
at the same time on different sides of the globe, that was
observable in the experience when traveling around the Earth,
very interesting. Even though they are intellectually familiar
with this idea, seeing it from the first person perspective was a
somewhat “eye-opening” experience. Participant reflects on her
mental process of coming to that realization:
To realize that it is so easy to look at something through one lens, but
when, if you are exposed to it in a different way, then something that
was so familiar to you ... can give you such a different perspective.
Something as simple as that sun is not shinning on the other side
of the half of the world, means its night time, and it’s so simple.
And I studied, moons, and tides and sunrises and sunsets, but never
thought about it quite so simply: that sun is shining on one side but
not the other side. (P08) Vastness
Vastness can be better described as part of the perceptual
experience that could lead to a cognitive shift (rather than a
shift in itself), but as it is considered to be the precursor for
the experience of awe (Keltner and Haidt, 2003) and cognitive
shift of perspective (Gaggioli, 2016), they are closely related. A
participant, who works at an aquarium described:
I remember thinking that the Pacific ocean is so big and for a while
I thought that I am not seeing things correctly. Which is funny,
because I <...>know that its huge. But it was so vast! And to see it
in that perspective was what was very unique for me. <...>It was
impressive and gave me another perspective on something that I see
and think about everyday. (P04)
This admiration of vastness is also often related to the realization
of how small each individual human is on the scale of the whole
world. Here a participant describes his thoughts when orbiting
around Earth: “I was really hoping to see maybe that sparkle of
the civilization, some kind of movement, some kind of glimmer, to
denote my . . . whats the word . . . like the size of people, how small
compare to where I am” (P03). Interconnection
Overview Effect and other transcendent and awe-inspiring
experiences have all in common the cognitive shift leading to a
realization of interconnectedness of life. In our data there were
a number of instances that could indicate this realization of
wholeness of the world: “transition from the bottom of the water
into the space scape and that sort of the initial moment when
you look at it holistically and you see . . . everything is involved
in it” (P11). But the most striking was the observation of the
participant when traveling around the Earth:
Frontiers in Digital Humanities | 12 May 2019 | Volume 6 | Article 9
Stepanova et al. Understanding AWE
There has been so many natural disasters lately with the
hurricanes, fires and all of that.. When you see at a global level,
the connection between things that are otherwise separate because
of the political things... When you see as a whole—its just like, well,
its just one planet. When you go around and see that Brazil is so
close to Florida, you know politically things are so far away... (P06)
This realization of interconnectedness can then lead to behavioral
changes, where in case of the Overview Effect, astronauts feel the
need for everyone to unite together to protect our planet and its
inhabitants (White, 2014). Intent of a behavioral change
In our data there were two comments from one participant that
could suggest an intent for a change in behavior, that could
be triggered by the feeling of interconnectedness. Firstly, on a
personal level, she was inspired to learn more about other people
and countries she may not know enough about: “I don’t know
much about south America, so it was interesting to look at it when
I can see all other distracting places I know more about. I thought I
should learn more about it” (P06). This could be related to the
aspect of perspective shift related to brining cultures together
by developing an understanding of other cultures [similar to
what astronauts describe (Gallagher et al., 2015)]. Secondly, on
a more global level, she had the urge to communicate this view of
interconnectedness to more people:
Just need for people to figure out the environmental sciences,
because its effecting everybody, but these are the artificial lines
that seemed to be so unhelpful. I was thinking from the educators
perspective. What a disservice it is to see a map as flat: things look
so much further apart than they actually are. And that need—if we
are going to problem solve bigger things, how this flat political map
is just not going to get us there. (P06)
3.3. Gallagher’s Hermeneutic Analyses of
Gallagher et al. (2015) undertook syntactical followed by
hermeneutic analysis of astronauts’ awe experiences based on
51 texts by 45 astronauts. From the analysis, Gallagher et al.,
generated 34 consensus categories of awe. They allow researchers
to determine whether in experimental studies, participants have
experience of awe and Overview Effect. Here (Figure 7), we count
the frequency of statements made by our participants that fit
into the awe consensus categories. The categories that were not
observed in our data and not included in the graph are: sublime,
poetic expression, peace (conceptual thought about), inspired,
home (feeling of being at home), fulfillment, floating in void (not
related to weightlessness), elation, disorientation.
We can compare the results of this study to the study by
Quesnel and Riecke (2018), that had 16 participants traveling
through Google Earth VR, whose interviews were coded with the
same categories of awe based on Gallagher et al. (2015).Figure 8
shows the comparison of the frequencies of participants coded
with the awe categories between these two studies. The “AWE”
experience was able to elicit more responses of totality, spatial
perspective shifts, sensation of floating and inquisitiveness, while
the Google Earth experience was better at eliciting feelings
of sublime and elation. We can speculate that the sensation
of floating and inquisitiveness were elicited as a result of the
narrative arc of the “AWE” experience, that wasn’t a part of the
Google Earth experience used in Quesnel and Riecke (2018).
Totality and the spatial perspective shifts observed in our data are
likely related to the “AWE” experience presenting the Earth from
a more distant perspective than Google Earth VR allows. While
the lack of sublime and elation responses in our study could be
explained by the difference of the quality of the Earth models that
we had in “AWE” and in the Google Earth VR.
Gallagher et al. (2015) did not report on the number of
participants coded with a certain theme, but rather the total
frequencies of codes (within 19 interviews). However, since the
lengths and types of interview procedures were different between
the current and Gallagher et al. (2015) studies, we can not make a
precise comparison based on these counts. Still, in their data the
most frequent categories were perspective shift (moral,internal),
contentment, interest/inquisitiveness, scale effect, and significant
sensory experiences, which only partially intersects with our data,
as these categories, even though present, were not as prominent
in our data. The study design was fairly different between
our studies: Gallagher et al. (2015) study used a spaceflight
simulation, designed to be realistic, that was presented through
the screens of cockpit/window as opposed to an HMD. As their
study was a more literal simulation of a spaceflight than “AWE,
it is possible that their participants were more inclined to think
about what they know about astronauts’ experiences, so it is
possible that some of these thoughts were introduced externally
based on associations rather than emerged from the properties of
the experience.
4.1. Relating to the Overview Effect
Stepanova et al. (2019) analyzed existing records and research
on the Overview Effect and derived design guidelines and
evaluation methods for virtual experiences aiming to elicit the
Overview Effect or an extent of it. Comparing the themes that
emerged from our data and the guidelines outlined in Stepanova
et al. (2019), we identify an intersection in the themes outlined
in Table 2.
From the evaluation guidelines we were pleased to observe
some mini-shifts reported by participants, that would indicate
each one of the 2b-2e themes. Even though we only observed a
few instances of each, it was still very encouraging, considering
that cognitive shifts are not easy to achieve, and it was still an
early prototype of “AWE.” From the design guidelines, the most
strong and interesting intersection was in the privacy, initial fear,
weightlessness and personal connection components.
4.1.1. Privacy and Social Space
Even though participants were not using the term “private,
from their discussion of felt safety and comfort we can
speculate that “AWE” was able to achieve the goal set out
by the “privacy” design guideline—creating a safe space for
participants to feel comfortable to have a transformative
Frontiers in Digital Humanities | 13 May 2019 | Volume 6 | Article 9
Stepanova et al. Understanding AWE
FIGURE 7 | The number of participants, that had statements coded with hermeneutics analyses of categories of awe (Gallagher et al., 2015).
experience. The social space guideline was aiming to assist with
the process of accommodation that is a necessary component
of a transformative experience following a witnessing of an
awe-inspiring vista. Even though only one participant explicitly
discussed it, but he reflected on how going through the process
of the interview was valuable to help him unpack his experience
and understand it on a deeper level than if he was just asked a
few questions. Hence, we believe that the interviews, especially
the microphenomenological method, were able to provide the
social space and the conversation that could facilitate the process
of accommodation.
4.1.2. Initial Fear
The precursors for the Overview Effect are hard to separate
from components of a spaceflight, but the initial moment of fear
naturally experienced when being shot in a rocket into space,
is, quite possibly, an important stage in the progression of the
experience (White, 2014). However, few people have personal
experiences associated with rockets, and as such, jumping into
water is a more visceral experience for most and therefore,
when part of VR, has a potential to induce stronger response,
which we indeed observed. However, we were surprised by the
strength, length and frequency of fear experiences, as we were
only intending for the jump into the lake to be a moment
inducing hesitation and requiring participants to take the leap
of faith. The personal background of participants shaped their
experience of descending through water to be more fearful than
we anticipated during the design process.
4.1.3. Weightlessness
The connection of feeling of weightlessness and Overview Effect
is also unknown as the records of them are inseparable: it
might be essential or not relevant (White, 2014). As the sense
of weightlessness on Earth is logistically challenging to achieve
in combination with VR, we were not aiming to replicate it as
a part of the experience. It was insightful to observe that several
participants did have a feeling of floating or weightlessness, and
informed us how the narrative of the experience can facilitate the
induction of this sensation.
4.1.4. Personal Connection
In at least some astronaut’s descriptions the feeling of
connectedness starts small from the personal connection to a
familiar location, and then extends from there to the rest of the
world. It was interesting to see in our data how prominent the
concept of familiarity was—10/13 participants were discussing it
(with no targeted prompts from interviewers). Two participants
also described how, when orbiting around the Earth, they were
picking out familiar locations to establish connection to them,
much like the astronauts describe. The virtual travel to a familiar
place in Google Earth was also powerful at eliciting awe in the
study by Quesnel and Riecke (2018).
The other three design guidelines (embodied experience and
self-relevancy, vastness, suspending disbelief through aesthetics)
were not as evident in our data. Even though there are some
indications of self-relevancy, for a lot of participants it was
significantly reduced as a result of restricted locomotion in
Frontiers in Digital Humanities | 14 May 2019 | Volume 6 | Article 9
Stepanova et al. Understanding AWE
FIGURE 8 | The percentage of participants, that had statements coded with hermeneutics analyses of categories of awe (Gallagher et al., 2015) in current study and
Quesnel and Riecke (2018).
the last parts of the experience. While perceived vastness
was mentioned three times, this is a fairly low frequency
for an experience aiming to elicit awe (Keltner and Haidt,
2003). Suspending disbelief through aesthetics was only partially
successful, as a lot of participants were still expecting an accurate
representation of the real world inside the VE and were thrown
off by any observable conflicts. Despite the clearly magical
creature, sprite, and the lake portal into space, some participant’s
sense of immersion was broken by seeing jellyfish in fresh water,
some trees appearing too tropical for the local biosphere or
the tent seeming too large for one person. Evidently having
magical elements in the narrative wasn’t enough for suspending
participant’s disbelief, especially when they were very familiar
with a specific environment (e.g., the jellyfish comment was
made by participant working at the aquarium). It might be
important to set up the right expectations from before the VR
experience starts by adding a narrative to why participants enter
the tent for going into the VR experience to prepare them for the
virtual story.
Overall, even though the “AWE” experience did not follow
all of the guidelines outlined in Stepanova et al. (2019),
it was able to achieve some indications of each one of
the core components of the overview effect: awe, increased
connectedness, increased responsibility for the environment. The
latter being indicated only once by a participant discussing
the need for everyone to unite together to develop a better
understanding of the weather systems as it is effecting
everyone. While awe is a complex emotion, it is hard
to make definite claims as to how much awe did our
participants experience: their interviews indicate a number
of components of awe identified by Gallagher et al. (2015)
specifically in the context of the Overview Effect. However, the
physiological measure of piloerection (Benedek and Kaernbach,
2011) revealed only one instance of awe in this study,
which is either the fault of the recording instrument or,
more likely, the result of the lack of intensity of awe that,
even though experienced to some degree, didn’t trigger the
physiological reaction.
Connectedness is also a difficult cognitive construct to
objectively measure, that we attempted with IAT. IAT scores
indicated a fairly strong connection between Self and Nature,
however these results are challenging to interpret, as we don’t
have a baseline for our Vancouver population. We made the
comparison with the data collected with the same test (with
identical items) in California, which could be an approximately
comparable population as they are both from the West Coast
of North America, although there still might be differences.
Besides lack of baseline, we also cannot know how much of the
Frontiers in Digital Humanities | 15 May 2019 | Volume 6 | Article 9
Stepanova et al. Understanding AWE
TABLE 2 | Selected design and evaluation guidelines for design of the virtual experience of the Overview Effect from Stepanova et al. (2019).
1. From Design Guidelines
a. Embodied experience and
The feeling of being in the virtual environment and having a first-person experience of it (as opposed to watching a
movie), that can be facilitated though a full-body experience and a perception of being an agent in the environment
b. Privacy and social space A combination of a private physical space, where the virtual experience is experienced, to facilitate immersant’s
comfort and openness to the experience, and a social space following the virtual experience to facilitate the
process of accommodation
c. Vastness Creating virtual stimuli that can facilitate the experience of something that is much greater than oneself
d. Suspending disbelief through
Using imagination-provoking imagery to assist the suspension of disbelief and openness to experience
e. Initial fear Including a fear-inducing part at the beginning of the emotional journey to imitate the emotional trajectory that
astronauts go through when being shot in a rocket into space
f. Weightlessness Facilitating sense of floating or weightlessness to imitate zero gravity environment
g. Personal connection Providing familiar elements into the environment to help immersants establish personal connection with them, that
then can be extrapolated into a larger feeling of global interconnectedness
2. From Evaluation Methods
a. Weightlessness Feeling of weightlessness or floating
b. Changed perception of space Altered perception of the relative size, distances and positions of celestial objects and geographic locations as well
as the relative position of oneself in relation to them
c. Awe Emotion of awe that can be evident from introspective, physiological or implicit measures
d. Interconnectedness The feeling of or a realization of global interconnectedness of all people, living species, or the planet at large.
Transcendence of one’s perceived boundaries of self and the feeling of belonging to something greater
e. Increased responsibility for earth The concern for and desire to protect the environment and all of the inhabitants of our Earth
connectedness of nature and self was attributed to the “AWE,
and how much of it was a personal trait. Implementing IAT as
a pre- and post-test measure could be a possible approach to
tackling this challenge (as in Peck et al. (2013) in the context of
racial bias), but as a reaction time measure, IAT scores are greatly
influenced by learning effects, and therefor repeated tests become
difficult to interpret as a measure of change. IAT is very rarely
implemented as a pre- and post-test measure, and as in Peck et al.
(2013) it requires inviting participants to visit the lab multiple
times, and still expects to observe a strong learning effect. The
qualitative data in our study, however, showed some promising
indications of moments of realization of interconnectedness.
As traditionally the records of the overview effect are
describing a moment during the spaceflight, it is difficult to
separate which components of a spaceflight experience might
be contributing to the Overview Effect and which ones are
unrelated. Until this relationship is clarified, we will have to target
both the components of the spaceflight and the Overview Effect
experiences in VR experience design. In our data we observed
some indications of some components of an experience of a
spaceflight: change in perception of space and weightlessness, but
not the change of perception of time and silence. However, we did
not explicitly try to measure them.
4.2. Comparing to Other VR Awe-Inspiring
Here, we want to compare the current VR experience and study
with other research attempting to elicit awe and Overview Effect
through the use of VR. This comparison allows us to speculate
about the role that the aspects of the VR experiences and research
tools had on the obtained results, thus informing future research
in this field. Chirico et al. (2017),Chirico et al. (2018a), and
Chirico et al. (2018b) have shown that an immersive experience
of awe-inducing stimuli were associated with a self-reported
awe measured with a questionnaire, however these studies used
less interactive environment than in our study, and did not
perform an extensive qualitative analyses of how a participant’s
experience in VR unfolded, what some key components of it
were, and how they relate to aspects of the virtual environments.
Our study is most similar to Gallagher et al. (2015) and
Quesnel and Riecke (2018), who also used a VR experience of a
spaceflight/orbiting the Earth and collected qualitative interview
data. They reported participants’ experiences of awe in those
VEs across 34 consensus categories defined by Gallagher et al.
(2015) hermeneutic analysis, and compared participants’ reports
of the virtual experience to real-life accounts from astronauts,
with some similarities identified. However, the environments
used in both of these studies were aiming to provide a realistic
representation of the view of the Earth from outer space, and
did not have a strong narrative component unlike “AWE.”
Conversely, with “AWE” we were not aiming to provide a direct,
realistic representation of the astronauts’ actual experience,
but rather wanted to integrate specific design features (artistic
strategies and narratives) to create a target emotional journey in
a research prototype. Our installation has elicited less observable
goosebumps than Google Earth used in Quesnel and Riecke
(2018), which could be due to a lower-fidelity quality of the
Earth model and usability issues in “AWE.” Another reason
might be that in Quesnel and Riecke (2018) participants had a
choice of their destination in Google Earth and would often travel
Frontiers in Digital Humanities | 16 May 2019 | Volume 6 | Article 9
Stepanova et al. Understanding AWE
to their hometown, which was eliciting nostalgia, which could
have contributed to awe. Another explanations might include
limitations in the wearable goosebump recording instrument,
which changed in prototype design from Quesnel and Riecke
(2018) to the present study; see section 4.4 below. However,
it should be noted that hermeneutic analyses of interviews
have produced comparable distributions of reports related to
awe categories between current and Quesnel and Riecke (2018)
studies, meaning that while goosebump recording may have
failed to detect physical indications of awe, the qualitative
analysis has shown some reliability. The observed differences in
distribution of awe categories can be explained through specifics
of the design of the experience, as discussed above.
Even though our “AWE” installation in its current state did
not elicit profound transformative experience in participants,
it showed promising results supporting the premise that VR
installations can elicit authentic emotional experiences and
induce minor cognitive shifts in some participants. This study
has also revealed some important aspects of an experience
participants have when experiencing this type of immersive
installation: specifically the safety and fear of the environment,
familiarity and novelty, affects and bodily sensations were
prominent themes in participants’ descriptions.
4.3. Key Outcomes
The elicited fear and the relief from it were an especially
interesting part of the experience of many participants.
Astronauts also describe a similar transition including the
association of the release from fear with the feeling of
weightlessness and silence experiences when floating in space
(Stepanova et al., 2019). This suggests an intriguing opportunity
that a narrative in VR affords: where we could replicate some
part of an emotional journey associated with a spaceflight with
a use of a different but more familiar and visceral metaphor. If
we have had recreated in VR an actual spaceflight experience,
that probably wouldn’t have achieved the same intensity of an
emotional response as a jump into the lake did. This could
also be indicated by an observation that most participants
found the lake or the forest to be the environments they felt
most emotionally connected to. However, when designing a VR
experience seeking a profound emotional reaction, we should
be cautious with inducing fear to avoid prompting a traumatic
experience (Madary and Metzinger, 2016). It’s important to learn
from the variety of the experiences that participants had and to
design the virtual journey in a way that facilitates the relief after
the minimal fear induction.
To the best of our knowledge the role of psychological relief
on inducing the feeling/illusion of physical weightlessness hasn’t
been discussed in the context of VR experience design. However
some VR experiences were able to induce the feeling of floating
or weightlessness. For instance, a meditation walk through a
virtual forest for chronic pain management was able to elicit the
sensation of weightlessness at least in one participant of Tong
et al. (2016). Their study doesn’t report on what might have
triggered that sensation, but possibly it was a similar mechanism
of relief/release, but in their case from some of the chronic pain.
Jain et al. (2016) discussed that some of the divers participating
in their virtual scuba-diving simulation felt weightless. However,
it’s hard to determine what have triggered it: it might have
been that the familiarity of the environment brought back
participants’ memories of past diving experiences, or that the
physical set-up of the simulation that was involving a swiveling
torso support and harnesses for the limbs was responsible for the
sensation, as participants were more or less suspended in the air.
These type of set-ups dedicated to specific floating experiences
are arguably a little cumbersome and expensive, as they often
include large physical structure, moving platforms or strapping
participants into harnesses, for instance: flying interface such as
Birdly (Rheiner, 2014), skydiving (Eidenberger and Mossel, 2015)
or swimming (Fels et al., 2005). Even though these interfaces
often provide very compelling experiences, some simpler and
cost effective solutions are desirable. Learning from the reports
of our participant’s describing the moments when they suddenly
felt weightless could provide new strategies for developing VR
experiences inducing the feeling of floating and weightlessness
without the complicated physical set-ups.
The number of fear responses observed in the interviews
stressed the high importance of understanding the personal
background of participants, and that each individual’s experience
would be very different. Experience with video-games tend to
help with objective performance measures in VR simulations,
e.g., in a surgical simulation (Grantcharov et al., 2003). In our
observations, gaming experience has not only influenced how
quickly participants were able to learn the interface and efficiently
navigate through environment, but it also significantly shaped
what expectations participants brought in. We propose (and
explore in our ongoing studies) for affective VR installations
to design a pre-VR environment to help create appropriate
expectations of the VR experience being an experiential piece as
opposed to a game that is presenting a challenge that a gamer
often seeks when entering a 3D environment.
Also, the individual experiences with forest and water
environments were key for how the virtual experience unveiled.
Some of participants had diving, cliff-jumping and camping
experiences, while others also reported getting lost in a dark forest
in childhood or being afraid of jumping from heights. All of
them formed a connection between their personal experiences
and being in the VE, which greatly effected their experience.
Given everyone’s different backgrounds at the design stage it
was difficult to predict the distribution of the reactions of
participants. Similarly, Shin (2018) in his study showed that
personal traits and predispositions of immersants may have a
larger effect on individual’s experience of an empathy-provoking
VR (specifically level of embodiment and empathy elicited),
than the specifics of the VR environment and interface. In
Quesnel and Riecke (2018) that used Google Earth VR we
also observed that the innate experiences of each participant
were completely different, and that their personal background
and life experience factored into their experience of positive
emotions in the study. However, the trend (that can be
generalized across participants) is that they experienced more
awe in VR when they had a personal connection to the
virtual location. Even though some generalizable trends can
be identified, the substantial role of the personal background
Frontiers in Digital Humanities | 17 May 2019 | Volume 6 | Article 9
Stepanova et al. Understanding AWE
presents a challenge for designing profound VR experiences as
well as to the interpretation of results of studies with them,
especially quantitative results. Both designers and researchers
need to develop strategies for addressing this challenge. Including
interviews and demographic surveys, as well as pilot tests
with varied demographics should be an integral part of the
development of affective immersive installations in order to
be able to understand participant’s experiences, and what
was the contribution of the installation to the affective state
achieved by the participant. Studies of complex experiences
and emotions that only collect quantitative data face a risk
of not having the tools to disambiguate the responses they
observe that stem from different participants’ backgrounds and
mis-attribute it to the components of the virtual system. This
also raises the issue of whether ‘one size fits all approach’
could be suitable for immersive affective installations. It will
be interesting to explore if procedural content generation in
combination with bio-responsive environments can help create
a more customized journey for each participant building on
their personal background and reactions to the elements of
the environment.
4.4. Limitations
There were likely some biases resulted from being a participant
in the study. Even though participants were provided with limited
information about the purpose of the study, the description given
within the consent form could have shaped their expectations.
Another bias stemmed from participants being purposefully
recruited as experts in interactive exhibits and culture spaces,
and consequently they were inclined to provide a lot of feedback
on the quality of the installation. This feedback is exceptionally
useful, however the focus on providing a critic might have
distracted some participants from being in a more experiential
state. This is also likely the reason why usability was the most
frequent topic in the interviews, whereas usability concerns
were not as prominent in previous tests of the prototype
with a different demographic. Having to wear the goosebump
camera sensors also might have presented a bias in participant’s
expectations. Only one participant had explicitly discussed how
she was expecting something to jump out at her to give her
goosebumps, but other participants possibly have also formed
some expectations.
4.4.1. Usability Issues and Navigation Interface
One of the main limitations of this study in terms of assessing
the potential of VR installation to induce an experience similar
to an Overview Effect, is the usability issues with the “AWE.”
Even though most of the participants generally liked the
installation, there are several technical aspects that need to
be improved. Many participants wanted to have more control
of their movement, especially in the underwater and space
part of the experience and be able to move faster. Contrary,
a few participants were experiencing motion sickness from
movement through the forest scene, where they had the most
freedom and the fastest movement. Also, some participants
wanted to have full freedom to explore the virtual environment
on their own and not to be guided in any obvious way
through the narrative. Some also pointed that qualities of
some virtual models can be improved and larger variety of
models can be added to populate the virtual environment,
especially in the underwater scene. The choice of soundtrack
also was questioned by some participants, while appreciated
by others. These, and many other usability related concerns
were limiting the ability of the “AWE” installation to provide
environment for a profound awe-inspiring experience leading to
cognitive shifts.
Additionally, the leaning interface used in this study, even
though useful for navigation and spatial orientation as supported
by previous research (Nguyen-Vo, 2018), was found awkward by
some participants and likely was not supporting the sensation
of floating. Alternative interfaces, designed for flying (Rheiner,
2014; Eidenberger and Mossel, 2015) could have supported
the feeling of floating, which might be useful for providing
environment in which an experience of an Overview Effect can
occur. In our current iteration of “AWE” we are integrating
the Limbic Chair interface (Patrik Kunzler, 2019) to hopefully
support the feeling of floating. However, all of these interfaces
are fairly complex and expensive, and thus a more affordable
solution of supporting the feeling of floating in VR would
be desirable.
4.4.2. Lack of Goosebumps
A low number of occurrences of goosebumps in our study is likely
associated with a number of usability issues in the prototype,
which would be improved for future studies, including the
resolution of the HMD, the quality of models and soundscape.
However, it is also possible that some goosebumps or shivers did
not register on our camera. There are limitations to our second
prototype goosebump recording device used. In this case, the
goosebump recording device touches nearby skin that is being
recorded, and our concern is that goosebumps that would have
otherwise appeared are thus suppressed by the recording device
itself. The first prototype used in Quesnel and Riecke (2018) was
bulkier, but instead touched the underside of the forearm, leaving
the top of the forearm (the recorded surface) out of contact. This
may have allowed for that study’s 43% goosebump elicitation rate
in line with previous studies also between 40 and 43% (Benedek
and Kaernbach, 2011; Sumpf et al., 2015; Wassiliwizky et al.,
2017). Our most recent goosebump instrument prototype now
records the back of the participant’s neck.
Interestingly in this study, the participant that had the
moment of shivers, had a slightly negative connection between
Self and Nature. Even though this is only one instance and no
strong inferences can be drawn, this could be an indication
that participants with a lower connection of Self and Nature
could be more likely to have a stronger emotional reaction
from observing awe-inspiring view of the Earth as they would
have a stronger need for accommodation than participants who
already feel a strong connection to nature and the experience
easily assimilates into their worldview (Lorini and Castelfranchi,
2007; Gaggioli, 2016). However, the relationship between the
strength of awe and the need for accommodation was not
supported in the study by Schurtz et al. (2012), where the
measure of the need for accommodation did not predict the
Frontiers in Digital Humanities | 18 May 2019 | Volume 6 | Article 9
Stepanova et al. Understanding AWE
measure of awe. However, their study was investigating awe
in the social context, not nature, and their measure of the
need of accommodation wasn’t validated, and as such, the
results do not eliminate the possibility of the relationship
between the degree of the need of accommodation and the
intensity of awe.
4.4.3. Gender Effects
Noteworthy, some gender differences were apparent in the
descriptions of evoked emotions in the experience, that were
less readily discussed by male participants than female, which
is aligned with the research on gender differences in use
of affective language (Goldshmidt and Weller, 2000). Micro-
phenomenological interviews might be useful for guiding male
participants to bring their attention to the affective dimension
and assist them with verbalizing their feelings.
4.5. Comparing the Interview Methods
The two interview techniques—cued-recall debrief and micro-
phenomenology—were successful in helping participants
provide a detailed account of their experience, with more
thorough and deep description than a semi-structured
interview or a survey could have achieved. This is evident
from comparing the richness and precision of the descriptions
collected in this study with our earlier pilot tests, that used
semi-structured interviewers. Unsurprisingly, the cued-recall
method was a little better at encouraging the feedback about
the system/installation and the micro-phenomenology the
feedback about the progression and dimensions of individual
experience. However, both methods have limitations: the
micro-phenomenological interviews are zooming in only
on a few moments, and thus don’t address experience as
a whole and provide little light on the portions of the
experience that were not chosen, while cued-recall debrief
doesn’t provide as much depth in descriptions and is less
rigorously structured, meaning that there might be more bias
introduced by interviewer. We can also observe some trends
in what type of responses are more likely to be provided
within a given interview: for instance, from Figure 7 we can
see that body change responses are more likely to be reported
in a micro-phenomenological interview, while intellectual
appreciation in a cued-recall interview. This is anticipated given
the interview structure.
This study indicated that a virtual experience, inspired by
the Overview Effect and designed to elicit awe, despite some
usability concerns, was able to invite minor transformative
experiences in some participants, including the main aspects of
it: the appreciation of beauty and vastness (Keltner and Haidt,
2003), realization of interconnectedness (Yaden et al., 2016)
and a potential intent to change one’s behavior based on that
realization (White, 2014; Stepanova et al., 2018). We have also
discovered some unique opportunities VR technology affords for
a design of a profound experience: the opportunity to create a
journey taking the participant through induction of a minimal
fear in a safe environment and a following release from it;
and the opportunity to explore the mind-body connection and
the effects of shifting the strength and the locus of control
within it.
The qualitative data of participants’ experiences in this study
inspires some research hypotheses that can be tested with
experimental studies. A few of the hypotheses generated as a
result of this study are:
1. Designing for a transition between environments eliciting
feelings of safety and fear can induce shifts in those states
and these shifts, can be associated with bodily sensations and
perceived separation of mind and body.
2. Familiarity and Novelty of the virtual environment are
important parameters that effect the affective experience of
the virtual world. Designing familiar environments would
elicit experiences of safety, comfort and trust, while novel
environments will elicit curiosity and excitement.
3. Creating or providing familiar objects or characters in VR,
helps immersants cope with uncomfortable experiences.
4. A familiar visceral experience simulated in VR, such as a jump
into water will induce stronger emotional reaction than more
dangerous, but unfamiliar experience such as a simulation of
flying in a rocket.
5. Seeing rotating Earth and day and night happening on Earth
at the same time from first person perspective gives a novel
perspective and understanding of the world.
Giving the reliance of this line of research on deep emotional
responses and importance of individual background, we see two
important directions for future development of this project: first,
extensive demographics information and interviews are required
when using quantitative methods of assessment in order to be
able to explain results in the context of a personal experience;
second, more flexible, bio-responsive and personalizable
experience, that can adapt to the immersant’s state is desirable
and will be able to create a smoother journey to the desired
emotional response.
In the future work we are planning to integrate more
physiological sensors (Quesnel et al., 2018a) and automatizing
the goosebump detection (Uchida et al., 2018), combined with
interviews of the events identified from the physiological data.
This will allow us to develop deeper understanding of progression
of one’s experience in an immersive affective installations, and
identify what elements of the journey might be triggering the
specific responses in the participants.
VR experiences, inspired by natural phenomena, provide
us with an exciting opportunity to study an individual’s
experience in detail and establish the relation between the
experience and the environment. However, we argue that a
profound experiences mediated through technology should
be seen as its own category of phenomena that requires
more exploration. To build this body of knowledge more
studies need to explore how profound affective VR personal
experiences unfold. This knowledge would inform future
design of positive transformative VR experiences that
would make such desirable experiences more accessible to
the public.
Frontiers in Digital Humanities | 19 May 2019 | Volume 6 | Article 9
Stepanova et al. Understanding AWE
The ethics approval was granted by Simon Fraser University
Office of Research Ethics (Study#: 2017s0269). Consent form
was signed digitally by each participant upon arrival to the
study space.
ES, DQ, and BR contributed conception of the project and
design of the virtual experience and the study. ES coordinated
the study. ES and DQ lead the data collection process. ES
transcribed most of the interviews with the help of other
members of the research group. ES and DQ developed the
coding scheme and analyzed the interview data. ES was
responsible for the thematic analyses, while DQ for the awe
consensus categories analyses. ES implemented and analyzed
IAT test. DQ designed goosebump camera instrument. DQ
and ES coded the goosecamera recordings. ES wrote the
majority of the manuscript. DQ contributed several sections,
specifically related to hermeneutics analyses and goosebump
camera. All authors revised and contributed to manuscript. BR
supervised the whole project. This work appears in ES’s thesis
(Stepanova, 2018).
The funding for this project was provided through NSERC
R619563 and 31-611547 and Small Institutional SSHRC Grant
R632273, Simon Fraser University (SFU), and Centre for Digital
Media (CDM).
We are thanking the Centre for Digital Media, Patrick
Pennefather and the Drifting Pugs team for their tremendous
help with the development of the virtual experience as
well as the NGX Interactive for their valuable support and
providing the space for the study. We are also thanking
the members of the iSpace Lab (Ivan Aguilar and Alexandra
Kitson) and Elgin-Skye Mclaren for their assistance with
running the study and Mirjana Prpa for conducting the
micro-phenomenological interviews.
Bai, Y., Maruskin, L. A., Chen, S., Gordon, A. M., Stellar, J. E., McNeil,
G. D., et al. (2017). Awe, the diminished self, and collective engagement:
universals and cultural variations in the small self. J. Pers. Soc. Psychol. 113:185.
doi: 10.1037/pspa0000087
Benedek, M., and Kaernbach, C. (2011). Physiological correlates and
emotional specificity of human piloerection. Biol. Psychol. 86, 320–329.
doi: 10.1016/j.biopsycho.2010.12.012
Bentley, T., Johnston, L., and von Baggo, K. (2005). “Evaluation using cued-recall
debrief to elicit information about a user’s affective experiences,” in Proceedings
of the 17th Australia Conference on Computer-Human Interaction: Citizens
Online: Considerations for Today and the Future (Canberra: Computer-Human
Interaction Special Interest Group (CHISIG) of Australia), 1–10.
Bonasio, A. (2018). Making the World a Better Place With Virtual Reality.
Available online at:
better-place-with-virtual- reality/ (accessed June 11, 2018).
Chirico, A., Cipresso, P., Yaden, D. B., Biassoni, F., Riva, G., and
Gaggioli, A. (2017). Effectiveness of immersive videos in inducing
awe: an experimental study. Sci. Rep. 7:1218. doi: 10.1038/s41598-017-
Chirico, A., Ferrise, F., Cordella, L., and Gaggioli, A. (2018a). Designing
awe in virtual reality: an experimental study. Front. Psychol. 8:2351.
doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2017.02351
Chirico, A., Glaveanu, V. P., Cipresso, P., Riva, G., and Gaggioli, A. (2018b). Awe
enhances creative thinking: an experimental study. Creat. Res. J. 30, 123–131.
doi: 10.1080/10400419.2018.1446491
Chirico, A., and Yaden, D. B. (2018). “Awe: a self-transcendent and sometimes
transformative emotion,” in The Function of Emotions, ed H. C. Lench (Cham:
Springer), 221–233.
Chirico, A., Yaden, D. B., Riva, G., and Gaggioli, A. (2016). The potential
of virtual reality for the investigation of awe. Front. Psychol. 7:1766.
doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2016.01766
Creswell, J. W. (1998). Qualitative Research and Research Design: Choosing Among
Five Traditions. London; Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
Eidenberger, H., and Mossel, A. (2015). “Indoor skydiving in immersive virtual
reality with embedded storytelling,” in Proceedings of the 21st ACM Symposium
on Virtual Reality Software and Technology (Beijing: ACM), 9–12.
Ermi, L., and Mäyrä, F. (2005). .Fundamental components of the gameplay
experience: analysing immersion. Worlds Play Int. Perspect. Digit. Games Res.
37, 37–53.
Fels, S., Kinoshita, Y., Chen, T. P. G., Takama, Y., Yohanan, S., Gadd,
A., et al. (2005). Swimming across the pacific: a vr swimming
interface. IEEE Comput. Graph. Appl. 25, 24–31. doi: 10.1109/
Fox, J., Bailenson, J., and Binney, J. (2009). Virtual experiences, physical behaviors:
the effect of presence on imitation of an eating avatar. Presence 18, 294–303.
doi: 10.1162/pres.18.4.294
Gaggioli, A. (2015). “Transformative experience design, in Human Computer
Confluence: Transforming Human Experience Through Symbiotic Technologies,
eds A. Gaggioli, A. Ferscha, G. Riva, S. Dunne, and I. Viaud-Delmon (Warsaw:
De Gruyter Open), 97–121.
Gallagher, S., Janz, B., Reinerman, L., Trempler, J., and Bockelman, P. (2015).
A Neurophenomenology of Awe and Wonder: Towards a Non-reductionist
Cognitive Science. London: Springer.
Garan, R. (2015). The Orbital Perspective: Lessons in Seeing the Big Picture From a
Journey of 71 Million Miles. Oakland, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.
Goldshmidt, O. T., and Weller, L. (2000). Talking emotions: gender differences
in a variety of conversational contexts. Symb. Interact. 23, 117–134.
doi: 10.1525/si.2000.23.2.117
Grantcharov, T., Bardram, L., Funch-Jensen, P., and Rosenberg, J. (2003).
Impact of hand dominance, gender, and experience with computer games
on performance in virtual reality laparoscopy. Surg. Endosc. Other Intervent.
Techniq. 17, 1082–1085. doi: 10.1007/s00464-002-9176-0
Henry, B., Moffitt, T. E., Caspi, A., Langley, J., and Silva, P. A. (1994). On the
“remembrance of things past”: a longitudinal evaluation of the retrospective
method. Psychol. Assessm. 6:92. doi: 10.1037/1040-3590.6.2.92
Ihle, E. C., Ritsher, J. B., and Kanas, N. (2006). Positive psychological outcomes of
spaceflight: an empirical study. Aviat. Space Environ. Med. 77, 93–101.
Jain, D., Sra, M., Guo, J., Marques, R., Wu, R., Chiu, J., et al. (2016). “Immersive
terrestrial scuba diving using virtual reality,” in Proceedings of the 2016 CHI
Conference Extended Abstracts on Human Factors in Computing Systems (San
Jose, CA: ACM), 1563–1569.
Keltner, D., and Haidt, J. (2003). Approaching awe, a moral, spiritual, and aesthetic
emotion. Cogn. Emot. 17, 297–314. doi: 10.1080/02699930302297
Kitson, A., Prpa, M., and Riecke, B. E. (2018a). Immersive interactive technologies
for positive change: a scoping review and design considerations. Front. Psychol.
9:1354. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2018.01354
Kitson, A., Schiphorst, T., and Riecke, B. E. (2018b). “Are you dreaming?:
a phenomenological study on understanding lucid dreams as a tool for
introspection in virtual reality,” in Proceedings of the 2018 CHI Conference on
Human Factors in Computing Systems (Montreal, QC: ACM), 343.
Frontiers in Digital Humanities | 20 May 2019 | Volume 6 | Article 9
Stepanova et al. Understanding AWE
Krause, N., and Hayward, R. D. (2015). Assessing whether practical wisdom and
awe of god are associated with life satisfaction. Psychol. Religion Spiritual. 7:51.
doi: 10.1037/a0037694
Levin, J., and Steele, L. (2005). The transcendent experience: conceptual,
theoretical, and epidemiologic perspectives. Explore 1, 89–101.
doi: 10.1016/j.explore.2004.12.002
Lorini, E., and Castelfranchi, C. (2007). The cognitive structure of surprise: looking
for basic principles. Topoi 26, 133–149. doi: 10.1007/s11245-006-9000-x
Madary, M., and Metzinger, T. K. (2016). Real virtuality: a code of ethical
conduct. Recommendations for good scientific practice and the consumers of
vr-technology. Front. Robot. AI 3:3. doi: 10.3389/frobt.2016.00003
McDonald, M. G., Wearing, S., and Ponting, J. (2009). The nature
of peak experience in wilderness. Human. Psychol. 37:370.
doi: 10.1080/08873260701828912
Nguyen-Vo, T. (2018). Efficiently navigating virtual environments with simulated
reference frames and body-based sensory information. Master’s thesis, Simon
Fraser University, Surrey, BC, Canada.
Palys, T. (2008). “Purposive sampling,” in The Sage Encyclopedia of Qualitative
Research Methods, Vol. 2, ed L. M. Given (London: Sage), 697–698.
Patrik Kunzler (2019). Limbic chair. Available online at: https://www.limbic-life.
Peck, T. C., Seinfeld, S., Aglioti, S. M., and Slater, M. (2013). Putting yourself in the
skin of a black avatar reduces implicit racial bias. Conscious. Cogn. 22, 779–787.
doi: 10.1016/j.concog.2013.04.016
Petitmengin, C. et al. (2009). The validity of first-person descriptions as
authenticity and coherence. J. Conscious. Stud. 16, 252–284.
Piff, P. K., Dietze, P., Feinberg, M., Stancato, D. M., and Keltner, D. (2015).
Awe, the small self, and prosocial behavior. J. Pers. Soc. Psychol. 108:883.
doi: 10.1037/pspi0000018
Prade, C., and Saroglou, V. (2016). Awe’s effects on generosity and helping. J. Posit.
Psychol. 11, 522–530. doi: 10.1080/17439760.2015.1127992
Quesnel, D., DiPaola, S., and Riecke, B. E. (2018a). “Deep learning for classification
of peak emotions within virtual reality systems,” in International SERIES on
Information Systems and Management in Creative eMedia (CreMedia), 6–11.
Quesnel, D., and Riecke, B. E. (2017). “Awestruck: natural interaction with virtual
reality on eliciting awe,” in 3D User Interfaces (3DUI), 2017 IEEE Symposium on
(Los Angeles, CA: IEEE), 205–206.
Quesnel, D., and Riecke, B. E. (2018). Are you awed yet? Exploring
interactive virtual reality for positive emotions. Front. Psychol. 8, 1–22.
doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2018.02158
Quesnel, D., Stepanova, E. R., Aguilar, I., Pennefather, P., and Riecke, B. E.
(2018b). “Creating AWE: artistic and scientific practices in research-based
design for exploring a profound immersive installation,” in In 2018 Game,
Entertainment and Media Conference(GEM) (Galway: IEEE).
Rheiner, M. (2014). “Birdly an attempt to fly,” in ACM SIGGRAPH 2014 Emerging
Technologies (Vancouver, BC: ACM), 3.
Riva, G., Baños, R. M., Botella, C., Mantovani, F., and Gaggioli, A. (2016).
Transforming experience: the potential of augmented reality and virtual
reality for enhancing personal and clinical change. Front. Psychiatry 7:164.
doi: 10.3389/fpsyt.2016.00164
Rosenberg, R. S., Baughman, S. L., and Bailenson, J. N. (2013). Virtual superheroes:
using superpowers in virtual reality to encourage prosocial behavior. PLoS ONE
8:e55003. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0055003
Schlitz, M. M., Vieten, C., and Miller, E. M. (2010). Worldview transformation and
the development of social consciousness. J. Consciousn. Stud. 17, 18–36.
Schultz, P. W., Shriver, C., Tabanico, J. J., and Khazian, A. M. (2004).
Implicit connections with nature. J. Environ. Psychol. 24, 31–42.
doi: 10.1016/S0272-4944(03)00022-7
Schultz, P. W., and Tabanico, J. (2007). Self, identity, and the natural environment:
exploring implicit connections with nature 1. J. Appl. Soc. Psychol. 37,
1219–1247. doi: 10.1111/j.1559-1816.2007.00210.x
Schurtz, D. R., Blincoe, S., Smith, R. H., Powell, C. A., Combs, D. J., and Kim, S. H.
(2012). Exploring the social aspects of goose bumps and their role in awe and
envy. Motivat. Emot. 36, 205–217. doi: 10.1007/s11031-011-9243-8
Shin, D. (2018). Empathy and embodied experience in virtual environment: to
what extent can virtual reality stimulate empathy and embodied experience?
Comput. Hum. Behav. 78, 64–73. doi: 10.1016/j.chb.2017.09.012
Shiota, M. N., Neufeld, S. L., Yeung, W. H., Moser, S. E., and Perea, E. F. (2011).
Feeling good: autonomic nervous system responding in five positive emotions.
Emotion 11:1368. doi: 10.1037/a0024278
Smith, J. A., and Osborn, M. (2004). Interpretative phenomenological analysis.
Doing Soc. Psychol. Res. 229–254. doi: 10.1002/9780470776278.ch10
Stellar, J. E., Gordon, A., Anderson, C. L., Piff, P. K., McNeil, G. D.,
and Keltner, D. (2018). Awe and humility. J. Pers. Soc. Psychol. 114:258.
doi: 10.1037/pspi0000109
Stellar, J. E., Gordon, A. M., Piff, P. K., Cordaro, D., Anderson, C. L., Bai, Y., et al.
(2017). Self-transcendent emotions and their social functions: compassion,
gratitude, and awe bind us to others through prosociality. Emot. Rev. 9,
200–207. doi: 10.1177/1754073916684557
Stellar, J. E., John-Henderson, N., Anderson, C. L., Gordon, A. M., McNeil, G. D.,
and Keltner, D. (2015). Positive affect and markers of inflammation: discrete
positive emotions predict lower levels of inflammatory cytokines. Emotion
15:129. doi: 10.1037/emo0000033
Stepanova, E. R. (2018). Virtual reality as a medium for designing and
understanding transformative experiences: The case of the overview effect.
Master’s thesis, Simon Fraser University, Surrey, BC, Canada.
Stepanova, E. R., Quesnel, D., and Riecke, B. E. (2018). “Transformative
experiences become more accessible through virtual reality,” in Virtual and
Augmented Reality for Good (VAR4GOOD), 2018 IEEE VR International
Workshop on (Reutlingen: IEEE).
Stepanova, E. R., Quesnel, D., and Riecke, B. E. (2019). Space – a virtual
frontier: how to design and evaluate a virtual experience of the overview
effect promoting the feeling of connectedness. Front. Digit. Humanit. 6:7.
doi: 10.3389/fdigh.2019.00007
Suedfeld, P., Brcic, J., Johnson, P. J., and Gushin, V. (2012). Personal
growth following long-duration spaceflight. Acta Astronaut. 79, 118–123.
doi: 10.1016/j.actaastro.2012.04.039
Sumpf, M., Jentschke, S., and Koelsch, S. (2015). Effects of aesthetic
chills on a cardiac signature of emotionality. PLoS ONE 10:e0130117.
doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0130117
Tong, X., Gromala, D., Gupta, D., and Squire, P. (2016). Usability comparisons of
head-mounted vs. stereoscopic desktop displays in a virtual reality environment
with pain patients. Stud. Health Technol. Informat. 220:424.
Tsaur, S.-H., Yen, C.-H., and Hsiao, S.-L. (2013). Transcendent experience,
flow and happiness for mountain climbers. Int. J. Tour. Res. 15, 360–374.
doi: 10.1002/jtr.1881
Uchida, M., Akaho, R., Ogawa-Ochiai, K., and Tsumura, N. (2018). Image-
based measurement of changes to skin texture using piloerection for emotion
estimation. Artif. Life Robot. 24, 1–7. doi: 10.1117/12.2284297
Wassiliwizky, E., Jacobsen, T., Heinrich, J., Schneiderbauer, M., and Menninghaus,
W. (2017). Tears falling on goosebumps: co-occurrence of emotional
lacrimation and emotional piloerection indicates a psychophysiological climax
in emotional arousal. Front. Psychol. 8:41. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2017.00041
White, F. (2014). The Overview Effect. Reston, VA: American Institute of
Aeronautics and Astronautics.
Williams, K., and Harvey, D. (2001). Transcendent experience in forest
environments. J. Environ. Psychol. 21, 249–260. doi: 10.1006/jevp.2001.0204
Wittenbrink, B., and Schwarz, N. (2007). Implicit Measures of Attitudes. New York,
NY: Guilford Press.
Yaden, D. B., Haidt, J., Hood, R. W. Jr., Vago, D. R., and Newberg, A. B.
(2017). The varieties of self-transcendent experience. Rev. Gen. Psychol. 21:143.
doi: 10.1037/gpr0000102
Yaden, D. B., Iwry, J., Slack, K. J., Eichstaedt, J. C., Zhao, Y., Vaillant, G. E., et al.
(2016). The overview effect: awe and self-transcendent experience in space
flight. Psychol. Conscious. Theory Res. Pract. 3:1. doi: 10.1037/cns0000086
Yang, Y., Yang, Z., Bao, T., Liu, Y., and Passmore, H.-A. (2016). Elicited awe
decreases aggression. J. Pacif. Rim Psychol. 10, 1–13. doi: 10.1017/prp.2016.8
Conflict of Interest Statement: The authors declare that the research was
conducted in the absence of any commercial or financial relationships that could
be construed as a potential conflict of interest.
Copyright © 2019 Stepanova, Quesnel and Riecke. This is an open-access article
distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY).
The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the
original author(s) and the copyright owner(s) are credited and that the original
publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice.
No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these
Frontiers in Digital Humanities | 21 May 2019 | Volume 6 | Article 9
... While VR shows promise for supporting self-transcendent emotions and the associated improvement in well-being [19,77,89,98,120,138], more research is required to unpack how to design VR experiences for this purpose. There is no universal or textbook experience of self-transcendence due to individual diferences among immersants and the variety and complexity of self-transcendent emotions [142]. ...
... VR nature exposure is valuable, as it provides access to nature's benefts for people or contexts where such access might be limited [73], and because higher levels of immersion support stronger positive efects [72]. Nature scenes in immersive VR are used to elicit well-being outcomes of relaxation [3,102,107], stress reduction [3,16,145], pain reduction [45,92], mindfulness cultivation [45,78], evoked connection to nature [2,69,113,117,120], reduced anxiety during medical procedures [107,139], improved attentional capacity [8,145], and arousal of awe [20,99]. Despite the plethora of studies investigating the positive efects of virtual nature exposure, the design process of the VR experience and how specifc aspects of the design elements might have lead to, or inhibited the desired efects are largely unexplored, with a couple exceptions [20,99]. ...
... STEM matters are usually presented in artistically pleasing ways. For example, science documentaries tend to show the marvelous universe, beautiful nature, striking phenomena, and serene microscopic images (Bissonnette, 2014;Kahle et al., 2016, Stepanova et al., 2019Yang, 2023). Such awe-inspiring images may create a sense of wonder and intellectual aspirations among the viewers (Anderson et al., 2020;Hadzigeorgiou et al., 2012;Kang et al., 2009;Urban, 2023). ...
Full-text available
Background Digital media are pervasive in the lives of young people and provide opportunities for them to learn about STEM. Multiple theories argue that the STEM media environment may shape how youth see a STEM career in their future. Yet, little is known about how pre-college digital media consumption may be related to students’ STEM career interest at the beginning of college. The wide variety of STEM media also raises the question of potentially different effects and pathways by media type. In this study, we collected a nationally representative sample of more than 15,000 students in their first year in U.S. colleges and universities. We asked about their career interests at the beginning of college and also asked them to retrospectively report their STEM media consumption during high school. Results We found that watching STEM-related TV and online videos, as well as playing STEM-related video games during high school, were positively associated with students’ STEM career interests at the beginning of college. However, we also found that STEM media consumption did not impact directly on STEM career interest, but acted through two intermediaries: STEM identity (I and others see me as a STEM person) and three personal career outcome expectations: a high interest in self-development (enhancement and use of talents), and low interests in material status (money, fame, power) and in interpersonal relationships (helping, and working with, other people). Conclusions This study finds that STEM media have a significant effect in fostering STEM career interest, with most of the effect coming from STEM TV, STEM video viewing, and STEM video games. The effect is mediated mainly through students’ identity and, to a lesser extent, through personal values, such as self-development, material, and interpersonal relationship values. This study suggests that media communication should be mindful of how different platforms may deliver nuanced and varied messages of what STEM careers may afford and who can succeed in STEM.
... As participants picked diferent moments to unpack, achieving a generalised micro-structure of a specifc phenomenon expected in microphenomenological analysis would have been neither possible nor useful for understanding the richer diversity of experiences and thematic threads connecting experiential aspects of the whole performance. Given the micro-phenomenological analysis' focus on discovering a generalised structure of a singular and brief phenomenon, more often than not an integration of micro-phenomenology in HCI includes only the elicitation method, then accompanied by a diferent analysis method [6,7,14,25,37,66,85,93,95,112] way, while the elicitation method helps to focus in and articulate tacit experiences, a thematic analysis allows to uncover shared themes across multiple diverse but related experiences, which may have distinct structures, but relate through how participants make meaning from them. We followed this recommended approach. ...
... To do this, the interviewer asks a series of questions that help the interviewee loosen their absorption of the content while allowing for a deeper articulation of the how of the experience. So far, this interview method has been used in HCI and interaction design for a series of research projects, including the exploration of experiences involving new musical instruments [72], a sound installation [28], VR applications [71,85], the embodied processes in the selection of textiles [69] and the analysis of the inherent vulnerability present in soma design processes [70]. ...
Conference Paper
Full-text available
As interaction designers are venturing to design for others based on autobiographical experiences, it becomes particularly relevant to critically distinguish the designer’s voice from others’ experiences. However, few reports go into detail about how self and others mutually shape the design process and how to incorporate external evaluation into these designs. We describe a one-year process involving the design and evaluation of a prototype combining haptics and storytelling, aiming to materialise and share somatic memories of earthquakes experienced by a designer and her partner. We contribute with three strategies for bringing others into our autobiographical processes, avoiding the dilution of first-person voices while critically addressing design flaws that might hinder the representation of our stories.
... Study 1 assessed the relations between awe and existential isolation, specifically through perceptions of small self and connectedness to others and the world. Following previous research (Chirico et al., 2016;Stepanova et al., 2019), awe was induced using VR. Prior research suggests that awe increases one's perceptions of small self and connectedness. ...
We propose that awe has multifaceted relations with existential isolation, a feeling of separation between the self and others or the world. Three studies examined the relation between awe and existential isolation via feelings of small self (vastness, self-size, self-perspectives) and a sense of connectedness. Awe (vs. a control topic) was induced either using virtual reality (Study 1) or a recall task (Studies 2 and 3) and was indirectly associated with higher and lower levels of existential isolation through differing pathways. Awe was associated with lower feelings of existential isolation via an increased sense of vastness, which in turn predicted greater connectedness; whereas awe was associated with higher feelings of existential isolation via increased sense of feeling small, which in turn predicted lower connectedness. This work advances understanding of the complex nature of awe-revealing its competing effects on the self and the social connectedness pathways through which awe can influence existential isolation.
... Furthermore, Isness has demonstrated that, like LSD and psilocybin experiences, VR can create conditions for mystical-type experiences, such as a sense of transcendence, ineffability, and connectedness [12]. In a broader context, including research on profound transcendental experiences through VR technology, subjects including lucid-dreaming [17,18], flying dreaming [21], meditation [23], awe inducing overview effects [27,32], and ethical concerns around disembodied VR experience [15] have been discussed and explored in the HCI community. ...
Conference Paper
Full-text available
Virtual environments are emerging as a tool for providing psychedelic experiences due to the increasing interest in altered states of consciousness (ASCs) and the spread of VR headsets. However, the user experience of commercial psychedelic VR applications has not yet been adequately explored in HCI. To fill this gap, we conducted a user experience study of Cosmic Flow, one of the psychedelic VR available on Steam. In this exploratory study, six participants experienced Cosmic Flow and got interviewed. Analysis of user interviews revealed three main themes that articulate different aspects of the experience: moderate interaction, reflections on personal experience, and VR ergonomics. In the discussion, we derive seven design considerations to guide the development of psychedelic VR: non-active engagement, positive indolence and idleness, non-invasive multi-sensory modalities, creative and introspective activities, effects of priming, virtual nature, and comfortableness. The study contributes to design researchers and practitioners working on related experiences.
Full-text available
Background Recent research has shown promising results for the therapeutic benefits of psychedelics. One popular view claims that these benefits are mediated by the subjective experiences induced by these substances. Based on this, we designed a virtual reality experience, Psyrreal, that mimics the phenomenological components of psychedelic experiences. Aims We aimed to investigate the therapeutic efficacy of Psyrreal and psychedelic VR experiences in treating depressive symptoms as well as explore the effect of Psyrreal on subjective factors which have been suggested to mediate the therapeutic benefits of psychedelics. Methods In this open-label feasibility study, thirteen participants with mild-to-moderate depression underwent a 2-day therapeutic intervention implementing Psyrreal. Depressive symptoms were evaluated by the Emotional State Questionnaire (EST-Q2) at the start of the intervention and 2 weeks after. A thematic analysis of semi-structured interviews after Psyrreal was also conducted as an additional assessment of the method. Results A 2-day intervention implementing Psyrreal led to significant decreases in depressive symptoms at the 2-week follow-up ( n = 10, p = 0.007, Hedges’ g = 1.046) measured by the Emotional State Questionnaire (EST-Q2). The analysis of semi-structured interviews suggests that Psyrreal could lead to insight and alterations in the sense of self in some people. Conclusion This work proposes a novel method using virtual reality to augment the treatment of psychological disorders as well as to precisely investigate the mediating subjective factors of the therapeutic effects of psychedelic substances. Our preliminary results suggest that VR experiences combined with psychological support show potential in treating depressive symptoms and further research into similar methods is warranted.
Cognitive/creative embodiment is a memory system that encodes information about physical competencies, contextual perceptions, and motor responses to internal and external situations. Elite athletes and performers cultivate highly refined embodied awareness that directly influences creative expression. Embodied creativity draws upon sensorimotor, relational, emotional, and aesthetic perceptions and actions. Technology is a powerful tool that is integrated into the training and promotion of these populations. Embodied creativity and embodied cognition are dependent on real-time physical engagement; however, physical engagement continues to rapidly change in response to technological advancements. During the recent COVID 19 pandemic, the interface of technology and elite performance has revealed unique possibilities as well as profound limitations. Embodiment, creativity and their interaction with technology are complex and dynamic processes. In order to navigate the changes that result from these interacting components (embodiment, learning, creativity, technology) strong adaptive skills are necessary; these challenges will equally require a strong embodied and creative self that can traverse a complex world.KeywordsCreativityEmbodimentPandemicPerforming artsSportTechnology
In this article, I explore sensemaking processes associated with the overview effect—a cognitive shift experienced by astronauts who see Earth from space. Analysis of publicly available interviews ( n = 51) with astronauts revealed a common sequence of sensemaking: First, astronauts reported experiencing speechlessness triggered by beauty and awe (a phenomenon I label, awe-mute). Second, during and after missions, most reported attempting to make sense of the experience with others, often resulting in a deepening of their previously-existing worldviews, a process I term sensedeepening. Third, sensedeepening often resulted in astronauts’ (a) admissions of inadequacy to give sense to their experience for others, and despite this, (b) development of messages to communicate their experiences, and (c) engagement in social activism. These patterns were corroborated by additional interviews with astronauts ( n = 5) and an interview with a prolific interviewer of astronauts. Implications for sensemaking theory and organizational change conclude the article.
Full-text available
A select small group of people have an amazing opportunity to see the Earth from a unique perspective-from space. The effect this experience has on an individual has been described as extraordinary and profound, consisting of a cognitive shift in worldview that leads to a deeper understanding of the fragility and vulnerability of our planet, and an increased feeling of connectedness. This experience, termed the "Overview Effect," has been reported by many space-travelers. Its key outcome-an enhanced feeling of interconnectedness-contributes to both one's well-being and the sense of responsibility for the Earth. If this profoundly positive experience could be made accessible to more people than just space-travelers, this might ultimately contribute to a healthier and more caring society, where more individuals deeply feel the interconnection of all living beings and responsibility for our collective future. Given virtual reality (VR) technology's potential to induce experiences affecting an immersant in a similar way as a real experience, we see an opportunity to leverage this technology to attempt to elicit the Overview Effect as a virtual experience. Through a virtual installation, the experience could be made accessible to people around the world, and for researchers to study this otherwise rare phenomenon. This article builds the case for VR as a tool for inducing and studying the Overview Effect. It reviews the psychological research on the Overview Effect and awe, and proposes guidelines for: (1) the design of VR experiences to elicit an Overview Effect and (2) evaluation methods for assessing if, or to what degree, the experience was achieved. Finally, we discuss existing implementations of the Overview Effect in VR. Thus, we are making an applied contribution in the form of design guidelines, and contributions to knowledge in the form of a review of research related to the Overview Effect. We invite researchers and VR creators to utilize and expand on the guidelines proposed in this paper to design transformative VR experiences that induce positive change, and promote a feeling of connectedness and care for each other, and our Spaceship Earth.
Conference Paper
Full-text available
The paper describes AWE (2018), an immersive mixed and virtual reality installation designed to elicit feelings of awe and wonder. Experiences of awe are found to prompt feelings of interconnectedness and an improvement to perceived well-being. To address the challenging prospect of designing for a specific emotional experience in a wellness application, we combined artistic and scientific practices through a research-based design process in order to identify awe-inspiring traits, generate a typology of awe, identify emotion validation techniques, and undertake iterative prototyping of the installation directly with participants. The resulting installation integrates a pre-VR mixed-reality experience to prime immersants for openness to the experience, followed by an immersive VR environment, and it uses a novel, custom interface for intuitive hands-free navigation. Our methods involve phenomenological interviews and physiological sensors to evaluate the evoked emotional experiences, which then inform design decisions to improve the system. Additionally, we integrate bio-responsive elements into the environment to further personalize the experience. Results suggest that AWE can elicit the target emotional experience of awe, prompt a transformative experience, and improve well-being in some participants.
Full-text available
“Awe” is a category of emotion within the spectrum of self-transcendent experiences. Awe has wellness benefits, with feelings of social interconnectivity and increased life satisfaction. However, awe experiences remain rare in our everyday lives, and rarer in lab environments. We posit that Virtual Reality (VR) may help to make self-transcendent and potentially transformative experiences of awe more accessible to individuals. Here, we investigated how interactive VR as a positive technology may elicit awe, and how features of aesthetic beauty/scale, familiarity, and personalization (self-selection of travel destinations) may induce awe. In this mixed-methods study, participants used an interactive VR system to explore Earth from ground and orbit. We collected: introspective interviews and self-report questionnaires with participants’ experience of awe; information on personality traits and gender; and we recorded physiological goose bumps on the skin (using an arm-mounted goose bump camera instrument), which is a documented marker of an awe experience. Results showed that on a scale of 0–100 for self-reported awe, four different interactive VR environments yielded an average awe rating of 79.7, indicating that interactive VR can indeed induce awe. 43.8% of participants experienced goose bumps: awe ratings positively correlated with the occurrence of goose bumps with those who experienced goose bumps having showed significantly higher ratings of awe than those who did not. Most (64%) of the goose bumps occurred when participants self-selected their VR environment. Participant statements from the interviews were characteristic of an awe-inspiring experience, revealed themes of social connection, and usability problems with the VR interface. Personality traits yielded no clear correlation to awe ratings, and females appear to experience more goose bumps than males. In summary: (1) Interactive VR can elicit awe, especially within familiar, self-selected environments; (2) Physiological goose bumps can be recorded to provide reliable, non-intrusive indications of awe; (3) Care must be taken to design interaction interfaces that do not impede awe; and (4) While personality traits are not correlated to awe ratings, goose bumps were experienced more frequently among females. We aim to conduct future studies using custom VR environments, interfaces, and additional physiological measures to provide further insight into awe.
Full-text available
Practices such as mindfulness, introspection, and self-reflection are known to have positive short and long-term effects on health and well-being. However, in today's modern, fast-paced, technological world tempted by distractions these practices are often hard to access and relate to a broader audience. Consequently, technologies have emerged that mediate personal experiences, which is reflected in the high number of available applications designed to elicit positive changes. These technologies elicit positive changes by bringing users' attention to the self—from technologies that show representation of quantified personal data, to technologies that provide experiences that guide the user closer in understanding the self. However, while many designs available today are either built to support or are informed by these aforementioned practices, the question remains: how can we most effectively employ different design elements and interaction strategies to support positive change? Moreover, what types of input and output modalities contribute to eliciting positive states? To address these questions, we present here a state of the art scoping review of immersive interactive technologies that serve in a role of a mediator for positive change in users. We performed a literature search using ACM Digital Library, Web of Science, IEEE Xplore, and Design and Applied Arts Index (beginning of literature—January 1, 2018). We retrieved English-language articles for review, and we searched for published and unpublished studies. Risk of bias was assessed with Downs and Black 26-item QAT scale. We included 34 articles as relevant to the literature, and the analysis of the articles resulted in 38 instances of 33 immersive, interactive experiences relating to positive human functioning. Our contribution is three-fold: First we provide a scoping review of immersive interactive technologies for positive change; Second, we propose both a framework for future designs of positive interactive technologies and design consideration informed by the comparative analysis of the designs; Third, we provide design considerations for immersive, interactive technologies to elicit positive states and support positive change.
Conference Paper
Full-text available
Virtual Reality (VR) has immersive powers that can teleport an im-mersant into a virtual world and provide them with an experience of being somewhere that they may not have been able to go to. These powers of VR are most often used for games and entertainment, creating a space for escapism and isolation that may have negative psychological and societal outcomes. In this paper, we argue for an opposing application of VR technology-for promoting wellness and feeling of connectedness with people and the world around us. Such feelings can be elicited as a result of a profound awe-inspiring experience, that expands one's mental model and consequently leads to a positive behavioral change. Such experiences are described as transformative, or in strong cases 'pivotal'. Unfortunately, these experiences are rare, only accessible by some people, and nearly unavailable for researchers interested in studying this phenomenon. The immersive powers of VR present a unique opportunity to reproduce such experiences in the lab or at home, thus making them accessible both to the public and to the researchers. Having real-time access to an experience of the immersant will allow the researchers to study the progression of the tranformative experiences and understand its effects and precursors. In this paper, we are proposing a framework through which transformative experiences can be studied in VR. Understanding this phenomenon will inform how VR experiences should be designed in order to create a positive impact on our society.