Can VR technology help us overcome fear of death?

Jurre Ongering

On the 19th of september, Frank Kolkman demonstrated his latest project at Waag. The demonstration took place in the historical Anatomical Theatre. The work was called: “Outrospectre: Simulating Out-of-Body Experiences".

Before the demonstration, Kolkman explained how the 'end of life' has been moving from the home environment, to a more institutionalized one like a hospital or a nursing home. Despite the emphasis that these institutions place on preventing death, we also see increasing attention for palliative care guiding or supporting the proces of death. One of the biggest and most understandable challenges around this type of care is dealing with the fear that individuals have of death. Kolkman explained how experiments using technology to deal with that, led to Outrospectre.

From a study of near death experiences Kolkman noticed that a high percentage of people reported having had an out-of-body experience. Furthermore, these people also report having no more fear of death after this event. Kolkman embraced this fact as a starting point for Outrospectre. His aim was to create an installation that could help take away fear of death, without people having to go through an actual near death experience.

Using VR technology, Frank has succeeded in creating an installation that triggers the sensation of being at two places at the same time. The installation exists of one location where a person is placed with VR goggles and headphones on. Behind you there is a track on which a beautifully made robot face is placed with camera’s for eyes and microphones for ears. The person involved in the experiment receives the visuals and sound that the robot 'sees and hears.' The robot will then slowly move from close behind the subject, to about 15 feet away, and then back.

The experiment is an individual experience. The reaction that people have had on this installation were very diverse. When slowly gliding away from yourself you see yourself standing there, still being able to move, but seeing your own movement as an observer. After moving away from yourself, you slowly slide back. The experience then ends.

Personal context is undoubtably of enormous relevance in this installation. When trying out the installation myself I looked back on a healthy and mobile body of me. What would the experience be it I would be slowly but smoothly moving away from an older, and immobile version of myself? And how would people that have experienced actual near death experiences of outer-body-experiences react on this installation?

Outrospectre is an installation that should be experienced. It raises relevant questions that have yet to be further explored. If its ambitious premises hold true, then it might even be the start of a very meaningful and human addition to palliative care.

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