“Do you want to see something weird?”
This was the first thing anyone said to me at PAX East, and despite everything my mother ever taught me, I replied “Yea, sure.” Then, I followed the interestingly dressed young man into a tent. No joke, a literal tent, right in the middle of the convention center. Had I been anywhere else, I likely would be too dead right now to type any of this. But this is PAX – people throw caution to the wind and ignore every bit of survival training that they’ve ever learned in their lives because there might be a really awesome game in the tent with the guy with the black and white pants.
Every other VR experience I’ve ever had has been active – my head, my hands, my entire body moving and exploring the simulated world. I was reaching, walking, picking things up and putting them down. This time I laid down on the floor of the tent and put on my headset and headphones, a vibrating pad under my back and a pillow under my head, and was catapulted into the most hypnotic virtual reality meditation experience I have ever had. And I was completely still.
I was transported from the floor of a tent in the middle of the show floor to the inside of a kaleidoscope, neon lights dancing and weaving in and out of my line of vision. Attempting to turn and watch them was pointless, and I realized within moments that the best way to actively participate was, in fact, to passively participate, as odd as that may sound.
SoundSelf isn’t much of a game – at least, not in the traditional sense of the word. Rather it feels inspired by what I imagine an LSD trip would be like, serving more as a meditation aid than a “real” game, as much as I loathe that wording. It’s nearly impossible to describe the experience. For the first few minutes I struggled to try to control what was happening, but at some point – and I can’t even place my finger on when that point was – I stopped actively thinking, responding instinctively and unconsciously to the changing colors and shapes. I’m not one for meditation, so I can honestly say this was my most successful attempt at it in my life. As someone who struggles to sit still for any period of time I was shocked by how easily I sunk into the experience.
The first day of the show I passed the tent half a dozen times, a few stragglers stopping to peek in. The second, there were more people gathered around. By Sunday word had circulated, and a line had formed. Watching people exit after the demo was almost as interesting as having participated in it myself. Everyone who exited the tent looked different – some were completely at ease while others appeared anxious. SoundSelf reacts differently to everyone, and as a result, everyone reacts differently to SoundSelf. It is a game customized both for and by you. There is no physical controller, only a microphone that you speak or hum into, with both the graphics and the vibrating pad responding to the tone and volume of your voice. You somehow manage to have complete control and no control at all simultaneously, and as a result you can leave feeling both comfort and unease.
I’ve seen some crazy things in virtual reality, but I’ve always come out hyped from the adventure I’d just had. This time, I finished the experience feeling completely at ease. Relaxed. Relaxed and glad that I decided to crawl into that tent with the stranger at PAX.