I'm sitting on a field of tall, red grass staring straight ahead at a lone tree. Its leaves match the crimson landscape that stretches out before me. In the distance, a rusty orange forest fades into the background. There's a gentle rustling of leaves, occasionally interrupted by the faint chirping of a bird, that forces me to breathe slower.
"Thank you for being here and being willing to consider moving towards the idea of dying and death," a calm, male voice prepares me for the virtual meditative journey.
A hazy white light source rises in the distance as the voice walks me through the process of focusing on my breathing. I watch the blades of the grass swish to the left with the wind. The tree slowly starts to lose its leaves. "Feel the air around you," the voice continues. "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."
As I let the weight of those words sink in, the blue sky slowly takes on a deep green hue, ushering in darker skies. Within moments, the field beneath me turns into a deep red lake that starts to rise around me. I gasp for air before I quickly remind myself that I have an Oculus Rift headset on my face.
When We Die is a virtual reality experience for perhaps the most difficult kind of contemplation: the end of life. The first half, with the metaphorical tree, presents the ephemerality of nature as a symbol of the finiteness of your own life. But the next chapter addresses the wider perception of death as a tragedy through real-life experiences.
In the second half, serene views of the cosmos shift the narrative from considering your own mortality to thinking about the process of dying as an inescapable reality for all. Celestial objects that dot the night sky reveal audio clips from a hospice worker, who shares her observations of death, and a neurologist, who grounds the experience in a physician's approach to it.
"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."
The fear of death, your own or a loved one's, is deeply ingrained in the human psyche. It can drive the choices we make, yet it continues to be shrouded in mystery. Over the years, hundreds of research studies have probed the process of dying, the fear of confronting death and how the awareness of one's own mortality has impacted religious, cultural and spiritual world views.
When We Die makes room for that spiritual contemplation with its abstract worlds: There are no physical bodies, only metaphors for the process of aging and dying. But the idea is rooted in a more practical understanding of the ways in which neglecting end-of-life processes can hamper the process of dying, especially for the elderly and the terminally ill.
Your browser does not support the
"It leads to systemic challenges," said Leslie Ruckman, an NYU student whose background in health care informed her work on When We Die. "There's all this money that gets spent on treating patients in ICUs, and people [often] end up dying in hospitals even though advance directives might say they'd rather die at home. These are bigger issues that arise out of the inability to look at the end of life and not being able to define what a good death might look like."
The VR experience relies on surreal visuals to make that happen. According to co-creator Dana Abrassart, when the group first started working on the project, they envisioned a James Turrell-style liminal space. But they quickly realized that a virtual take on the light and space movement would trigger motion sickness.
Nausea in a death-related experience would defeat the purpose of their work. So instead, the group found inspiration in Richard Mosse's infrared imagery. "It's this idea that there's a light spectrum around us but the human eye can't see it," Ruckman told me. "We liked that as a parallel to this natural process that is always present and yet, we choose not to see it."