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The Total Perspective Vortex

Part of a research proposal developed in Summer 2020, provided here for interest and amusement.

Back in January 1980, the eighth part of Douglas Adams’ radio play “The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy” debuted on BBC Radio 4. In this episode, the character Zaphod Beeblebrox is forced to experience a device called the Total Perspective Vortex (TPV).

In the story, the TPV is constructed in order to give its users a “sense of perspective”. This is interpreted as delivering a comprehension of the infinite scale of the Universe and the infinitesimal size of an individual person in comparison. The device does not have positive connotations in the story, but for me it served as a catalyst for thinking about the mechanisms of human perceptions of scale, and the consequent effects of scale on our subjective experience of awe, the feeling of reverential respect mixed with fear or wonder.

The neural basis of the perception of relative scale is not well researched, and neither are the cognitive effects which might modulate the raw sensory experience of such information about the world to form subjective impressions. Conversely, from a psychological perspective feelings of awe have been studied in some detail. In particular, awe has been found to exert a pro-social influence on humans; if you experience awe, you are more inclined to engage in positive, helpful, inclusive and friendly behaviours. This is also related to the overview effect experienced by astronauts who directly observe our planet in its entirety, against a backdrop of the infinite cosmos. People who have had this experience are often much less concerned with normal human tribal divisions as a result.

So for this project I envision building and leading a research and development programme that brings together collaborators in computer science, neuroscience and cognitive and social psychology, in order to elicit the principles that govern the subjective sense of awe, and to build a machine which uses these principles to deliver a hugely exaggerated “awesome” experience.

Recent work from academia supports the viability of the project idea, but was limited in scope both in terms of technology and in the extent to which users can experience awe; that work focused directly on the overview effect and involved participants viewing virtual reality (VR) representations of the Earth.

In constrast, for this project the initial work will focus on small research projects, perhaps in collaboration with university researchers and students, that explore the mechanisms that give us a sense of scale. This work will result in publications that present evidence supporting explanations about how humans experience relative size, and perhaps also produce demonstrations of the effects using technology that we build. Later work, the main part of the project, will be to construct the machine. This could be based around personal VR equipment, or could be of more elaborate, room-scale construction. In either case, users of the machine will be transported to a virtual environment whose principles of construction derive from the science carried out earlier in the project. Through a variety of sensory modalities including sound and vision, but possibly also incorporating haptic and vestibular cues, the human experience of relative size, the sense of space, will be pushed to its limit, taking the participant on a sensory rollercoaster through spatial dimension, expanding Umwelt and approximating the ideal illustrated in Adams’ radio play.

In the end, the device will be an exciting and engaging piece of technology whose construction will result in new knowledge about human experience and whose operation will allow ongoing exploration of the effects of awe on the psychology and sociology of humans. The ideal scenario is that the TPV gives those who experience it a persistent and transformative sense of awe, and these people behave in measurably more pro-social ways as a result. The dream is to construct tangible technology that lessens the divisions that humans feel between themselves; to give the entire world the chance to get the astronaut’s perspective.