Coffins and nausea… but VR is still storming ahead

Is a virtual reality coffin experience going too far?

Six years ago I watched a movie called Buried and it stayed in my mind long after I had finished watching it. In the movie, the leading character, played by Ryan Reynolds, is a truck driver working in Iraq who finds himself (after being attacked) waking up buried alive in a coffin. He has just a few tools like a mobile phone and lighter to help him escape and he needs to do it quickly. Naturally, the movie is not everyone’s cup of tea but it was atmospheric and interesting in depicting the terror of being partially cut off from the world and not knowing what is going on above ground.

So it is bizarre that you can now experience what Reynolds went through in an immersive coffin experience called Taphobos, currently on display at the Zealous X Creative Festival in East London. One player gets inside a real-life coffin with an Oculus Rift, a headset, and a microphone. The other player uses the PC with a microphone and headset. And the two must work together to rescue the buried player before time runs out.

Ethical issues

It sounds crazy but the whole point of the experience is to make “users uncomfortable”. One reporter has already tried it and said she found the experience “bizarrely thrilling” and described it as being “akin to being on one of the big Alton Towers rollercoasters”.

That might have been her initial view, but sometimes a user might not feel the full effects of the experience till much later. Something that might feel thrilling and fun in the moment might prove traumatising months later. Also (far in the future) as the VR technology improves and steadily becomes more immersive, will users be able to tell the difference between reality and fiction? The 1999 movie eXistenZ  excellently depicted this when the characters found themselves unable to determine whether their actions were done in the game or reality.

The physical experience

Then there is the problem of motion sickness. No matter how sophisticated the technology gets, what’s the point if the user is just going to feel sick after ten minutes? I got a taste of this myself at the Mercedes factory on the simulator. Being physically still yet speeding ahead on the race track made for a really uncomfortable experience.

There has been much debate on this issue. Some blame the developers for causing nausea, while others believe it’s purely individualistic. Still, it’s an issue that needs to be addressed and we don’t know much yet about the long-term effects of virtual reality on the brain.

Despite these concerns, it has been predicted that VR sales will hit 14 million units worldwide in 2016. Sony, Microsoft, Facebook are all getting in on the action and yes the exciting possibilities are endless. Who doesn’t want to take a trip to space? Or visit Japan from the comfort of your sofa? Like with every new piece of technology, there are potential harmful effects but it is what you do with it that matters right? So perhaps with the coffin experience, it might be ok to try it once but doing it repeatedly might become a bit worrying…