Can technology let you trip without tripping?
Maybe you've heard that there is a psychedelic renaissance going on; headlines abound preach about how LSD cures headaches, ayahuasca cures addiction and how Denver might legalize psilocybin mushrooms.
Maybe you're interested. But maybe you don't want to actually do psychedelics because you're worried about messing up your brain or breaking the law.
Just for you, a whole squadron of designers have built virtual reality "trips." The immersive, 3D experience of virtual reality is intended to mimic psychedelics, without any legal or physical risks.
I was curious. Is this possible? So I arranged with Greg Sklar and Robert Ottinger of Reality Garage in Boulder, Colorado, and Nathan Hostetler of Head Games VR in Lakewood, to try a half dozen virtual reality tripping simulators.
"It gives you some idea what a psychedelic trip is like," said Ottinger, "with the sound and immersion, it's gonna be next level. It takes you one step closer."
"I can see how VR could be a pretty effective way to bring yourself to an altered state," said Hostetler. "And if that's what people want to do, I'm all for it."
After spending a couple hours trying them, I found these games can show you what a trip looks like pretty well. (Emphasis on the word "show.")
Some of these you can try yourself; a $15 Google cardboard turns any phone into VR goggles.
Many of these you need a professional set-up to see, such as an Oculus Rift or the HTC Vive.
Spirit Realm was spot-on for showing you what a DMT trip looks like. Drop from a purple cube into a blue latticework world out of which emerges neon faces and strange writing … fast and disorienting. All I needed to complete the visuals was Terence McKenna telling me that the faces were actual aliens.
A Ready Player One tie-in game has a trip in it. If you go to Halliday's nightclub, you can trade drugs with clubgoers. Interesting that something tied to a major studio features tripping. But not much like tripping itself.
The best was supposed to be Soundself, which calls itself "Technodelic" — technologically psychedelic — and which Wired called "A VR acid trip without the drugs and flashbacks."
Wanting to give Soundself a real thorough shot, I got Reality Garage's managers Ryan Zech and Nova Luehrs to give me the room for an hour. They locked the door behind them. I laid on the ground. (They said they'd never seen anyone lay on the ground for an hour before in VR.)
Soundself is cool. Really immersive. It doesn't just work on sight, but on sound. So when you breathe or speak it loops the audio back on you, creating an immersive echo chamber.
And its visuals really look like a trip's. (A high-dose trip. Like, three or four tabs.) The geometry, the bright lights. And each breath or noise sends the patterns spinning off into new directions, as often happens in trips.
But the whole thing doesn't feel like a trip. None of the virtual reality simulators do. And feeling is huge. A trip is not just in your head, it's in your body.
There's no feeling of warmth or coolness, fear or joy. No difference in how you feel about the world or yourself.
It's the difference between watching a YouTube clip about skydiving and actually jumping out of a plane. Or how, in eighth grade, when DARE was trying to scare you off alcohol, they gave you Drunk Goggles. But alcohol isn't just a thing that makes your vision different. It revs you up, lowers your inhibition, makes you love and hate, makes you pee your pants.
"LSD works on the brain far more than what you see and hear," said Jamie Hurt, head of Denver-area virtual reality outfit Thunderfish. "You're not going to have any revelations in virtual reality, an epiphany is never going to occur. It's never going to be like a drug."
Of course, not everyone wants to freefall from an airplane or soil their drawers. Which isn't bad. Somebody has to fly the plane, drive drunk people home and keep some of our faces from being tripped completely off.