SIAT Graduate student Alex Kitson


Designing VR for Self-Transcendence

March 12, 2019

Meet SIAT Graduate student Alex Kitson

1.  What are you working on in your graduate studies?

I’m investigating how to design for virtual reality that supports self-transcendence–decreased self-salience and increased feelings of connectedness to others and one's surroundings. I’m inspired by lucid dreaming, knowing one is dreaming while dreaming, since that’s the ultimate virtual reality.

2.  What are your favourite projects?

Lucid Loop is an interactive, virtual reality experience where one can practice awareness of the present moment through feedback of one’s physiological state. Visuals are creatively generated before your eyes using a deep learning artificial Intelligence algorithm to emulate the unstable and ambiguous nature of dreams. The virtual environment becomes more lucid or clear when the participant's physiological signals, including brain waves, respiration, and heart rate, indicate focused attention. Lucid Loop enables the virtual embodied experience of practicing lucid dreaming where written descriptions fail. It offers a valuable and novel technique for simulating lucid dreaming without having to be asleep, ultimately helping to self-regulate one's state and enable more frequent or sustained lucid dreams. Lucid Loop has the potential to provide a powerful new tool to complement the increased research interest into lucid dreaming and its practices, whose benefits contribute to wellbeing. I am working with my supervisor, Bernhard Riecke, and Steve DiPaola along with many of his talented students.

Transcending the Lab is a project focused on how we can better support and study profound emotional experiences, such as self-transcendence, in the lab. Profound emotional experiences are rare and expecting a participant to have one in a typically sterile lab setting is almost laughable. Set and setting are important contributors to supporting these profound experiences, so we set out to find a way of better supporting them. We are inspired by ceremonial rituals and theatre as ways to gradually transition participants from the lab to a virtual reality experience and back again. Through both our past research and a collaborative design process, we have formed design elements aimed to support a self-transcendent experience. Specifically, we aimed to support child-like wonder, perceived agency, and a sense of connectedness to others and one’s surroundings. Our preliminary results are encouraging, and we are excited to pursue this work further. I am working with my esteemed colleagues Bernhard Riecke, Katerina Stepanova, Ivan Aguilar, Natasha Wainwright, Denise Quesnel, as well as Patrick Pennefather and his students from the Centre for Digital Media.

3.     What motivated you to pursue graduate school?

I have always been eager to explore and investigate how we perceive and act in the world, and perpetually on the hunt for more knowledge. Being at the forefront of knowledge excites me and fulfills a passion to push the boundaries of what we think we know and what is possible. Graduate school is a way to explore my interests in the most focused and uninhibited way that a typical job wouldn’t typically allow. I also think I’m well suited for academic work, so this is just the beginning of a long career. 

4.     Why did you choose the School of Interactive Arts & Technology over other programs?

For many reasons, including its multidisciplinary approach to research and stellar faculty. I actually started as a research assistant for my now supervisor, Bernhard Riecke, for my undergrad senior project and I really felt those at SIAT were my people. There’s a sense that you can make anything happen if you’re driven and have a clear vision. There are not too many other schools in the world like SIAT that combine arts and science. My undergrad degree in Cognitive Systems was also similar in ideology, so coming to SIAT was a natural transition.

5.     What advice would you give to those who are deciding if graduate school is right for them?

Grad school is a lengthy and stressful journey. Like any career, there are pros and cons, so anyone considering grad school should think long and hard about what they want out of the experience and have realistic expectations going in. I’d suggest talking to other grad students already in the program because they can give insight into what it’s really like.

6.     How did you cope with the transition into grad school?

Between my undergrad and grad degree, I worked for a year as a research assistant at SIAT. That way, I experienced first-hand what grad school would be like and started gaining those skills necessary to be successful. So, when I finally started as a grad student, I was ready to go. My support network and mental health were also very strong going in, which provided me a solid foundation to cope with the stressors and difficult transitions that come with starting grad school.

7.     What are your future aspirations?

I want to be a part of making the world better. I see technology dominating how we communicate and interact with the world, so it’s important to me to have a say in how we design for better technologies that support our wellbeing. To me, that looks like working as a researcher either in academia or industry to create knowledge and products around this idea. I hope to continue to work with like-minded and passionate people. For now, I’m continuing work on designing for transformative experiences and hoping to graduate in 2020.