David Christopher Lane, Ph.D.
Professor of Philosophy, Mt. San Antonio College Lecturer in Religious Studies, California State University, Long Beach Author of Exposing Cults: When the Skeptical Mind Confronts the Mystical (New York and London: Garland Publishers, 1994) and The Radhasoami Tradition: A Critical History of Guru Succession (New York and London: Garland Publishers, 1992).
Kenneth's Journey into Virtual Reality
An Ongoing VR Journal by Kenneth Williams
Introductory Note: Kenneth was a student in my online Philosophy class at Mt. San Antonio College this past semester. We had never met in person until eight weeks ago when he happened to come by my office around 3 o'clock in the afternoon to talk. He was in a high-tech wheelchair since he was quadriplegic and could only navigate by using the sides of his head. Kenneth was T-boned in a horrific automobile accident five years ago which left him totally paralyzed, with no sensation from his chest downwards and with no feeling in his hands or arms. He has mobility from the neck up only.
Kenneth is a bright light, quite intelligent and very articulate. He has a clear and sonorous voice that is easy on the ears and an infectious smile that lights up all those around him. We had an instant rapport as we discussed the philosophy of mind, quantum theory, and then veering off with a fascinating segue into Faqir Chand's unknowingness concerning religious visions.
Right then in the midst of our conversation, Kenneth changed the topic to virtual reality, mentioning that he had read much about it, including some of the articles I had written on the subject. This, naturally, piqued my interest since our philosophy department had recently purchased several new Oculus Quest standalone VR headsets so our students could get a glimpse of this emerging technology.
I could see Kenneth's curious fascination for VR by the delightful and boyish twinkle in his eyes. Looking back in my office, I realized that I had a more rudimentary Oculus Go headset and asked Kenneth if he wanted to try it.
It took us a bit of trial and error to properly adjust it on his head, since he had to untie his long hair out of a bun; and because there is no sensation in his hands, the set has to be adjusted just right for his visual field of view.
Oculus Quest standalone VR headset
I started him off with “Welcome to VR” which provides a brief introduction to the various facets of virtual reality, from being able to watch a movie on a huge screen to simulating a fighter pilot on a dystopian planet. I could tell that he was hooked.
For the past few weeks we have met in my office and corresponded off and on. I asked him what he most wanted out of VR and I was pleasantly surprised by his response: “I want to fly to outer space and be among the planets and the stars.”
“Ah,” I replied. “Me too. There are some very good apps that do things like that. My favorite is Spheres.”
Kenneth, I soon realized, was a test pilot for all things virtual and that he should be given the opportunity to beta test various games and applications in virtual reality. I was curious to see which ones gave him the greater sense of freedom, given his immobility.
I asked him if he would share his journey over the next few months. Kenneth has a great support system with his wife and young daughter, who, given his limited range of motion, could help him navigate better. The following is the first installment in Kenneth's VR Journal. I think it is quite valuable since he VR is still in its infancy and I am hoping he can give us greater insight into where it should go and what it needs.
Dec. 13, 2019 | Friday 1:15 PM
It is my intention to share with you details of my experiences after I engage in various VR applications and games.
On this day I was utilizing (well, actually beta testing) my Oculus Quest VR goggles that were given to me as a gift from my philosophy professor David Lane, who also happens to be my friend. But this came about based on our conversation about his experience with astral projection while in meditation, which I've read in one of his co-authored books that had a chapter that was narrated by his wife Professor Andrea Diem. I believe it was "The Cerebral Mirage" which contains various chapters pertaining to their studies. But primarily, in her chapter what caught my attention was when she began talking about the comparison of VR with true astral projection. In other words, she wanted to know if the goggles could present the same experience as astral projection in a virtual world. Her husband explained to her that it is quite similar and works much better than expected.
My display of interest and curiosity amazed my professor friend, and David immediately offered me an opportunity to utilize his virtual reality goggles. I can assure you I was very excited and when he placed the goggles on my head the view that I saw was very amazing and clear. He had to assist me with navigating and placing the goggles on my head because of my condition being paralyzed with no movement from my shoulders down. I'm a quadriplegic dealing with a spinal cord injury resulting from a car accident five years ago where I was T-boned while crossing an intersection driving home from work. And yes, I was the only one who suffered injuries so severe.
Dealing with this newfound injury has made so many drastic changes in my life especially when it came to going places and being socially active or physically active, like I once was before my injury. Mentally, it was a very conflicting battle but I still yearned to be a part of society and the activities going on in the communities. But it was not so easy because of the lack of transportation that requires a wheelchair accessible vehicle and initially after my discharge from the hospital, my wife, daughter and I were using the services of Access Para-Transit. And that experience is a whole other chapter within itself that I do not wish to give any notoriety or credit for getting me to my destinations. Just know that it only caused us more stress and added to the PTSD we were both dealing with due to the unreliable services.
In spite of that, I submitted an essay to a contest in December of 2016 that was being held by a spinal cord injury organization called Triumph Foundation, and the prize was a wheelchair accessible van. I wrote in response to a series of questions that were asked and basically wrote a story explaining what happened before the accident, and what I intend to do after with the new transportation. Sad to admit, I hadn't received a response and then I saw a video on social media that someone else was selected.
But later around the fourth quarter of 2017 I started getting emails and calls from the ambassadors at Triumph Foundation, claiming they were just checking in on me, but also informing me that they were going to keep my essay for the next contest in consideration. Long story short, the founder Andrew Skinner reached out asking to visit me, just to be cordial and asking when we were available. Naturally, they were invited to come. They arrived sometime later that day asking us to come outside. While we were talking, Andrew's wife drove into the parking lot as this was a surprise to award us with our own wheelchair accessible van!
Things became much better because my wife often has a busy work schedule throughout the week and on weekends. With that, and my going to school two days a week she would always be tired and feel sometimes overworked because we had no assistance like nursing care or someone to be with me when she is not around.
Kenneth Williams and daughter
A quick summary of what I'm trying to say, if I was not at school then I would be home most of the time. It was not easy for me to get out for a personal activity and to really have any social life. I would practically be on my computer everyday using voice recognition to navigate and use my computer for various activities or assignments when in school. And also, to interact with people via social media, but it was not the same. It was frustrating being unable to play certain video games (or practically very few of them) and also being unable to be a part of the community while watching every one attending parties and having major gatherings that I cannot be a part of.
So, I was very frustrated at times and would feel like a prisoner in my own body and in my own home. As much as I have tried to control it, I'll constantly have moments where I would be frustrated by my wife as if she would not allow me to do anything. It was not her fault, of course, because ultimately I would have to ask her for help and most of the time her response was that she was tired or it was the wrong time.
The last few paragraphs were dictated to give you an understanding of how today came to be, and the introduction of virtual reality goggles and the relationship with my Professor David. It explains how my situation happened and how it affected me and my family traumatically, and primarily how it caused me to be limited in my activities.
I've always imagined what the full potential of the virtual reality experience had to offer as I have seen it in movies and other simulations in gaming showcases. But I have never experienced it myself and I have always been curious. Virtual reality is defined as, “An artificial environment which is experienced through sensory stimuli,” provided through a computer system. A virtual world, an oasis where you're able to be in an avatar of your choice and move around, while also touching things with virtual sensors. It has evolved and become quite advanced and the games are practically the equivalent of CGI [Computer Generated Imagery] movies and they allow you to fight opponents, climb mountains and fly aircrafts in space.
It is my intention to share with you details of my experiences after I engage in various VR applications and games. I'll explain what I experienced and how I felt with every game that I am able to play and also my attempts to use my right arm to hopefully navigate the virtual environments with the right controller using my hand. And this is I will have to do without dexterity, nor do I have any sensation. I'll just be using my intuition while focusing on the simulation.
Scene from: Epic Roller Coaster VR - T-Rex Kingdom
The first VR simulation that I experienced is called the “Roller-coaster.” What makes it actually very funny to me is the fact that I did not like or enjoy riding roller coasters before my accident. It was not even a consideration or a topic of discussion. But sure, I'll consider a virtual simulation of it because I do not have to worry about falling or some strange malfunction like the ones that have been happening as of lately. This experience gave me a very good feeling and actually raised my adrenaline up because of the excitement. Initially, right before the ride starts, I'm supposed to reach back in the simulation and grab the lap bar but my wife has to do that part for me first; after which she then she returned the headset back to me.
It amazes me how I'm able to turn my head to the left or to the right and also up or down to look around in the virtual environment. I am able to look over objects that appear to be in the way of others and under to see what is behind them or even walk around. The environment for the roller-coaster is very nice with a very beautiful sky, light-blue with cumulus and cumulonimbus clouds. This was the first simulation scene that I initiated and it was called the “Tyrannosaurus Rex” ride; it reminded me of the park tour ride in the movie “Jurassic Park” because of the various dinosaurs that I would pass or even go under like the Brontosaurus. When my car started and drifted off slowly, I felt like I was inside the environment looking around and going under trees and through the mountains as I passed a triceratops looking disturbed. Some dinosaurs even walked across the tracks and my speed began to pick up.
I could feel the sensation in my loins and stomach as the ride was going faster with leaning turns that were sharp and I would continuously jump as I often became startled from believing that my ride was going to run into a dinosaur so many times. There were raptors that were running parallel to me and they passed me on my right and then as they were ahead of me, one made a left and turned onto the track running straight towards me. Now, my mind was saying “Ok, here we go with this shit!” Basically, it's getting real and my body was not ready for it anticipating an attack as my heart was beating faster and faster as this ferocious dinosaur that everyone knows are little terrorizers runs straight for me and literally jumps over me right before I'd thought it would make direct contact.
I shook my head and the ride was giving me the feeling like when you're in an elevator going down because the ride sped up even faster and came to a ridge or cliff where there was no more track and I did not know what was about to happen but the ride did not slow down, so now I was nervous. And then I was airborne and it felt as if I were defying gravity as my ride was gliding over land and dinosaurs; it was amazing actually and got my full attention as I was anticipating some type of crash landing. But I landed on another track and it was a rough landing, this made me think about the virtual simulator video and how it affects your mind with the projections and that it is actually quite convincing that this is actually reality. The VR allows my sensations to react as if I was going to be attacked, crash, or fly among other stimuli. This overwhelming sensation triggered my fight or flight response, but in this case, it was “continue with the ride or take off the headset right now?”
I love the parts of the roller-coaster that were going straight upward allowing me to stare at the sky in front of me and back onto the leveled terrain. I came to a stop right in front of another Tyrannosaurus Rex as its head was down eating another dinosaur's insides. My ride stopped and I was just sitting there watching the dinosaur eating his food and looking up occasionally but not at me, and I could have been maybe 10 feet or so from it. Another time it looked up and began coming my way tilting its head sideways and looking my way baring its teeth snarling and moving closer. As it towered over me, I was quiet but sort of excited at the same time. I actually whispered to my wife saying, “There is a T. Rex looking in my face right now.” Like I was scared it was going to hear me.
And then the ride started again moving backwards away from the T. Rex but now the T. Rex is fixated on me and following in pursuit. But I was laughing now because they cannot move fast and it was just chasing me with its little arms as my ride sped faster and the dinosaurs disappeared as others appeared while I was moving fast backwards until I came to another abrupt stop and began moving forward on to another track. This track began going inside the opening of a mountain traveling upward and moving at an accelerating rate, constantly making sharp turns playing on my adrenaline. Until I came to another opening of an ending or cut off track where I became airborne again but this time there was a Tyrannosaurus below and I was unfortunately headed in its direction like I was on a collision course with it. But I landed in its freaking mouth and that was beyond startling.
That was an amazing experience! And there will be more to explain to you in detail, as this one is just the first installment of my daily log in what it is like for someone like me who is paralyzed to experience the richness of virtual reality.
Concluding Note: Kenneth is a pioneer and it is my hope that by detailing his experiences in VR he can offer us a portal into which applications and games provide a greater sense of freedom, since each one of us (paralyzed or not) are limited by our bodily mechanisms. Kenneth and I have discussed meditation and the human desire for something transcendent. It may seem strange that a new-fangled technology may actually dovetail with ancient contemplative practices. To be sure, we shouldn't conflate VR with Astral Travel (or the meditational sense of leaving one's body), but from my own experiences in doing both fairly intensively there are striking parallels that shouldn't be ignored. We are entering into a new time period where artificial intelligence and virtual reality will usher in worlds of experience hitherto thought impossible. I look forward to Kenneth's further adventures on the very frontier of our newly discovered simulated realities.