Using VR and AR to Talk About Death and Dying

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As we continue to support people in discussing end of life wishes and sharing legacy, we thought it would be both fun and informative to see how people have used virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) in this area. Beyond entertainment and novelty, these technologies are often used to generate empathy and help us experience things we otherwise couldn’t in real life (think traveling through the values of the human heart or circling the moons of Jupiter).

After a bit of research, it seems there are two main categories of VR/AR applications in this space: those that generate empathy by walking you through the final days of someone who is actively dying and those that generate end of life conversations by imagining the experience of death and the afterlife. Here are some of our favorites:

Author’s note: At the time of this blog post, we have not yet tried these VR experiences in person but have learned of them through articles and reviews. Some were available for a limited-time only and others require specialized equipment we don’t readily have on hand. We intend to try what we can and will provide a more detailed account of each experience when we are able.

The Clay Lab: End of Life Conversations

A creation of Embodied Labs, The Clay Lab takes learners on a journey through end of life conversations as Clay, a 66-year-old veteran diagnosed with a terminal illness. This experience helps learners explore the conversations and issues around key moments when a person with a terminal prognosis changes from a curative path to a palliative care path. Some of these conversations include hearing for the first time about a “bad” diagnosis, a decision to enter hospice care, potential conflict between family members around how your final days are spent, and saying goodbye to loved ones. The project was done with extensive research and consultation with both professional and family caregivers. Carrie Shaw, the founder of Embodied Labs, was inspired to create experiences that build empathy and awareness for caregivers after becoming a caregiver to her mother who developed Early-Onset Alzheimer’s. In 2018, Carrie and her team won the top prize at the Caregiving for Dementia Innovation Challenge, sponsored by AARP and UnitedHealthcare, with a project they did about the onset and progression of Alzheimer’s. While marketed primarily as tools for caregiver training, the projects at Embodied Labs can build empathy and understanding for just about anyone. And since 34.2 million Americans provided unpaid care for an adult over the age of 50 in the past 12 months, it is certain that many of us will find ourselves in the role sooner or later.

In The Cloud and When We Die

Next on the list are a pair of VR simulations of what it’s like at the moment of death. First is In The Cloud, a brief fantasy foray into the afterlife, chock-full of futuristic artistry. With few details shared on their website (and without the VR gear to try this ourselves), the experience seems to imagine a perhaps not-so-distant future in which part of our existence can be preserved in the cloud as videos, holograms, or something even more realistic.

When We Die relies a bit more on natural imagery including fields of tall grass and darkening skies to symbolize the transition from earthly life to eternal—more guided meditation than sci-fi thriller. The first part is the actual simulation of death with gentle narration encouraging you to “Feel yourself letting go as if you’re a tree dropping your leaves. The breeze takes the leaves away. Everything that you know and everything you cherish will be taken by the wind.”  The second portion shifts focus to conversations about death being a condition of all life rather than just your own. It includes audio recordings from a hospice worker and a neurologist who both share their career experiences dealing with death. All of this is meant to help foster a broader conversation on the topic for the same reasons that inspired us to start Legacy Foundry. “We wanted to create a safe space for people to have difficult conversations,” said Paula Ceballos, an NYU student who is a part of a trio that created When We Die for the school’s Interactive Telecommunications Program. “We find that in the Western culture death and dying and aging get put behind closed doors, and we wanted to bring it up and make you think about it.”

Second Chance

For those who want an even more vivid view of what death might be like, San Francisco-based art collective Lava Saga spent three months converting a two-story art gallery into an immersive theater experience that included many real-life interactive encounters in addition to VR. Some of these included wandering a dark room draped with white linen sheets as actors and dancers shared reflections of their lives, lying down in darkness as melancholic cello music filled the room, and joining a facilitated group dialogue to process the experiences in the simulation along with the real-life memories it evoked. To add to the vulnerability factor for participants, Second Chance implemented rules for their participants that included limiting the number of participants to 10 at a time and requiring that you separate from all other members of your party during the experience so you share the encounter with strangers. Again, the mission of this production was to bring greater visibility to the topics of death and dying. The whole production was part of Reimagine End of Life Week in San Francisco, where 175 different presenters, panels, films, and other creative projects encourage participants to talk more openly about death and how it affects us. Though the initial run of Second Chance ended a few months ago, its creators say they consider it a prototype on which future experiences will be based.

Suma Tomb and Spot Message Japanese Apps

We’ve found very little so far in the augmented reality space. Two of the apps we found are Japanese language-only and focus on audio and visual encounters with deceased loved ones using smart phones to explore the environment. The first is Suma Tomb, an app that allows you to see images of your deceased loved ones at a “virtual grave” in a geo-locked location. This means that rather than visiting an actual cemetery, you can select a real-life location of your choosing as a place to memorialize those you’ve lost. The app is a sort of follow up to Spot Message, which allows you to unlock messages left by loved ones in real life when you walk to a certain point on the map. Spot Message is more commonly used by living friends and relatives who might direct you to your favorite sunny spot at the park to share that they love you, or for kids who are greeted at school on the day of a big test to encouraging words from their parents. There is also an option for deceased family members to leave messages before they die to cheer up their loved ones or share a story. Users might share funny and touching anecdotes like the first time their grandfather took them fishing, which their children could play when taking a walk to the lake.

Conclusions

Overall, the VR and AR experiences we’ve found all have an emotional focus. Honestly, it’s hard to imagine an interactive or immersive experience on the topic of death and dying that doesn’t evoke strong emotion. The intended use for these apps varies widely from training tools and conversation starters to fantasy and unique memorial experiences. At this time, there doesn’t seem to be one clear defining path. And so far, none of the products we’ve encountered directly prompt or coach people to have end of life conversations with their loved ones and healthcare providers. We will continue to explore these formats as we consider solutions that are high-tech, low-tech, and no-tech.

 

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