Rita Addison as seen in her VR CAVE installation
"DETOUR: Brain Deconstruction Ahead"

"If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, infinite."
--William Blake

"My abiding goal is to create experiences in which participants cross their perceptual threshold and enter a state of enhanced awareness
in which wonder and awe await to resuscitate the human spirit."
--Virtual reality artist Rita Addison


Suppose you had an accident and suffered brain injury. Suppose you were broken, invisibly, on the inside. How could you make the invisible visible? How could you show your doctors, friends, family, how to see what it is not to see?

You are walking down a corridor in an art gallery. The walls are lined with breath-taking nature photographs: exquisite ocean landscapes, magnificent sunsets, forest glades of unearthly beauty. Your hear the sound of waves crashing and gulls crying.

Then the gallery fades away, and you are driving down a dark and foggy road. There is a flash of oncoming headlights -- then a crash, a windshield splintering, a woman's scream...and silence.

Suddenly, you are inside a human brain, with something gone terribly awry. Axons shear, chemicals ooze, dendritic connections snap and flash like broken wires in an electrical storm. A man's voice says: "There's been traumatic brain damage. I'm afraid she's going to have problems."

Then you are back in the gallery, walking down the same corridor. Only this time, when you try to look at the photographs, you see that you cannot see them. The sunset bulges and distorts; a sickening, whitish blob smears the ocean; a fuzzy black spot blocks the forest. Instead of gulls and waves, you hear buzzing and clanking, the hideous screech of metal on metal. Stunned and shaken, you leave the virtual gallery -- with your vision, in the deepest sense, changed forever.

You have just experienced "DETOUR: Brain Deconstruction Ahead," the award-winning virtual reality art installation created by former psychotherapist and nature photographer Rita Addison to "tell the before-and-after story of my life."

"Broken, invisibly, on the inside" by the 1992 car accident that left her brain-damaged, neurologically and visually impaired and unable to work, Addison resolved to, in the words of the poet Dylan Thomas, "rage, rage against the dying of the light." Noting that others in her head trauma support group felt the same isolation, desperation and despair as she did, Addison decided: "We have a major human crisis here. By God, this accident will not bury us all. How can we invite others in to experience what we are going through, from inside our black holes? How can I turn our impotence into empowerment, darkness into light?"

She had heard that virtual reality offered a way of immersing people inside a story so that they felt they had physically experienced it. "Maybe I could use VR to make the invisible visible -- to let people step through a portal of perception and see, hear and feel how my life had changed," thought Addison. "Maybe I could create a therapeutic environment that immersed them in an 'undivided moment' of deepened, altered awareness so that they could transcend their own consciousness and experience the psychic relief of total empathy with another's experience."

Under the guidance of pioneering VR researcher David Zeltzer of MIT, and with the creative and engineering help of scientist and artist Marcus Thiebaux of the Electronic Visualization Lab (EVL) at the University of Illinois, Chicago, Addison reconstructed her life story as a VR CAVE experience. The CAVE (for Cave Automatic Virtual Environment, an allusion to Plato's famous "Simile of the Cave" with its illusory wall of shadows) is an immersive, audio-visual VR theater: an actual, ten-foot-square room constructed of large screens and floor on which high-resolution 3D graphics are projected.

To experience "DETOUR," you enter the CAVE (becoming a "CAVE dweller") and don lightweight, stereographic viewing glasses with headphones and a built-in "headtracker" linked to computers. The headtracker tracks your real-world position, and the computer adjusts the 3D graphics to match your changing point of view.

As you walk inside the CAVE, you walk through the virtual gallery, viewing Addison's own photos as she saw them before her accident -- then pitch headlong through the windshield of her car accident. It is then that "DETOUR" takes you on its "journey of disorientation through a gallery of anomalies" -- Addison's photos seen as she now sees them.

To best tell Addison's story, Thiebaux built special VR software for the headtracker. As you approach a post-accident photograph, it shifts, blurs, smears and distorts in response. "The anomalies seem to emanate from you, as though your vision were actually causing them," explains Thiebaux. "You see through Rita's now-damaged eyes in a way impossible in any other medium."

Created as a means toward Addison's own healing, DETOUR has won international acclaim for its ability to engender not just catharsis, but transformative empathy. So strong is the sense of presence and empathy evoked by the ten-minute experience, that the widow of the nearly-blind Aldous Huxley exclaimed upon leaving DETOUR: "So that's what Aldous was trying to tell me his world was like!"

And having opened the "doors of perception," having seen what it is not to see, can we ever again be blind to the pain of others?

In Addison's follow-up CAVE work, "Synaesthesia," the environment becomes responsive organism, your heartbeat a rippling spiderweb, and your breath, the wind.

Addison has also recently directed a VR project at the University of Umea Hospital in Sweden to apply and evaluate these concepts and technologies in a clinical setting. In this project, Addison created a virtual "stroke world" which models the real world as experienced by patients recovering from stroke. Families of stroke patients navigate through this virtual world and experience the disorientation and disability suffered by their loved one. By heightening the empathic understanding of family members, Addison hopes to ease the transition of the patient back into the family setting.

"My ultimate goal," says Addison softly, "Is to empower people to communicate from their heart and spirit, to share their human experience. I want to create VR software that lets anyone build their own journey based on their life -- their memories, thoughts, senses, dreams. Through using VR to tell our story, to witness trauma in a new way, each of us can become the author of our own healing."

Photos courtesy Rita Addison
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