Digital information is ubiquitous. It’s now on our desktops, in our pockets, wrapped around our wrists, distributed throughout our homes, and increasingly co-opting our nervous systems. And now, the metaverse — a collection of online, shared virtual environments where users embody avatars to connect, play and explore — beckons us to live our lives in a cyber reality.
The metaverse is part of an extended-reality (XR) ecosystem ecosystem including Virtual Reality (VR), Augmented Reality (AR), Mixed Reality (MR) and Spatial Augmented Reality (SAR) which includes Digital Domes. These XR interfaces are, in essence, portals into cyberspace. The effectiveness of XR interfaces and experiences is based on three senses: A sense of presence — the feeling of actually being there; A sense of embodiment or ownership; and a sense of agency — the feeling of free will and intentional action within the virtual world.
XR is a fast-growing ecosystem that fundamentally changes how we produce,\ distribute and consume media.
XR modalities are disrupting the very notions of content production, distribution and consumption. Our media lexicon has expanded to include the experiences of embodying, interacting, crowdsourcing, socializing, crypto-minting, worldbuilding, and user-generated content.
So, where is XR technology taking us? How will it be used? What are we evolving into as humans? And how can this increasingly ubiquitous digital technology be harnessed to best serve — and not harm — humanity?
These questions bring us into the realms of media, consciousness, and future tech. I’ve made a study of the power of XR for social impact, digital pharmacology and transformative experiences. I’ve also investigated the origins of entertainment, from the roots of shamanism to today’s celebrities and digital spectacles. From this research a new archetype emerges: the technoshaman — one who crafts multisensory digital worlds and experiences to elevate and harmonize human consciousness on a mass scale.
The Metaverse: Future of the Internet
The metaverse is envisioned as the next evolution of the internet — a collection of real-time, 3D interactive virtual worlds where people work, meet, play and create their own worlds, games and events.
In the metaverse, we use avatars — digital representations of ourselves — to enter virtual or augmented worlds.
Avatars can appear realistic or cartoonish or take on various forms such as animals or imaginary beings. They can replicate physical reality or can be imbued with magical powers. Avatars enhance our sense of presence, embodiment and agency while providing a social identity as we explore metaverse worlds and meet and socialize with others.
What will our lives be like when we are immersed in a digital reality wherever we go?
What sort of worlds will we create? Will we be overwhelmed with signage, ads and information? Or will we live in beautiful digitally enhanced worlds that we command? What kind of storyworlds will we create and inhabit? And most
importantly, what influence will this new media have on society, culture, consciousness and the course of human evolution?
Film is limited in its ability to portray or evoke a full range of human emotions and experiences. Cinematic storytelling suggests a character’s inner state-of-affairs through their narrative, behaviors and micro- expressions. Some films tell stories through a character’s internal dialog or attempt to enter the realm of consciousness through memory montages, flashbacks or impairment shots. While first-person narrative provides a window into the protagonist’s minds, the fullness of our ineffable inner experience is difficult to transmit through common cinematic devices.
Non-narrative films can evoke ineffable states by withholding cognitive stimulation — which tends to distract participants by engaging their intellect and instead emphasizes affect. Non-narrative “art” films have seen some success, including Koyaanisqatsi (Godfrey Reggio, 1982), Baraka (Ron Fricke, 1992) and Samsara (Ron Fricke, 2011). These films are representational in nature, creating an arc using music and suggestive live-action cinematography.
Visionary art, surrealistic, or non-representational abstract art relies on pure effect to evoke deeper, more sublime emotions and states of consciousness. One popular use of abstract art is visual music, which is often employed by vjs at electronic music dance parties, concerts and light shows. Like a Rorschach inkblot test, viewers of abstract art are free to project their own meaning onto the imagery. Music or sounds then become the driver of affect with the colors, shapes and movement of abstract art captivating or entrancing the mind, often freeing the participant from their own internal dialog for a time.
Films based on abstract or visionary art are often labelled experimental or avant-garde and rarely achieve popular acclaim. However, immersive abstract art — especially 360 dome films — have proven to be highly effective and commercially viable, perhaps because they command more of our visual field, which amplifies the visual effect.
Cases in point include planetarium laser light shows pioneered by Laserium and more recent 360-dome video shows such as James Hood’s Mesmerica, which seeks to take participants on a “journey inside your mind” — using stunning visuals and poetic narrative. Indeed, the abstract art of Mesmerica leaves room for participants to project their own minds outward, truly making it an inward journey.
While planetariums and XR domes are well known for cosmological cinema — a term coined by dome pioneer David McConville, what is emerging now is best described as phenomenological cinema — XR storytelling journeys into the realms of mind.
The deeper neurological effects of VR are evidenced by its clinical efficacy in treating anxiety, eating, and weight disorders, pain management and PTSD. VR pioneer Chris Milk called VR an empathy machine in his 2015 TED Talk.
Worldbuilders can construct inhabitable virtual cities and communities, create spectacular immersive art and entertainment experiences, supercharge storytelling, develop multiplayer games and more — imbuing their emotions, values, and worldview, and ultimately, their consciousness, into the worlds and experiences that they create.
Not surprisingly, XR technologies such as VR have successfully stimulated greater awareness and empathy for a variety of social causes, including environmental issues, crime victims, refugees and more, through immersive journalism. Storyworlds can also include worlds of mind and imagination by simulating possible futures, worlds of fantasy and enchantment and deeper layers of the psyche.
Gene Youngblood anticipated the trajectory of media to include the externalization of consciousness in his 1970 book Expanded Cinema.
Our life experiences include highly subjective, personal or contemplative states of consciousness that are difficult to portray through the cinematic language, which focuses on physical expressions, behaviors and dialog. However, many phenomena of consciousness are ineffable, existing only in the realm of phenomenology — essentially, the direct inner experience of consciousness.
The meditative journey of a Zen master, for instance, would be impossible to portray in cinema through outward expressions. We would merely see a person sitting in meditation, expressionless, while internally, they experience a state of samadhic bliss. To portray such a state, we would need to simulate the Zen master’s inner experience, essentially entering and experiencing their mind.
XR technologies emerged from training simulators for vehicles such as aircraft. We are now finding that not only can physical world experiences be simulated, as with cinema, but inner states of consciousness can be simulated and even evoked or transmitted through immersive media. One of the most powerful such states is known as the mystical, unity, non-dual or transcendent experience. As
described by visionary artist Alex Grey:
He goes on to describe how transcendent states, which are central to Grey’s art, are non-dualistic and are better expressed through art than words:
Worldbuilders are learning to create non-dualistic worlds that evoke ineffable, transcendent states of consciousness.
In his 1985 book The Death and Resurrection Show: From Shaman to Superstar, Rogan Taylor traces our modern entertainment industry back to the earliest of all religions: shamanism. Shamans went on inner journeys, often fueled by entheogens, on a vision quest for their tribe.
Then they communicated those visions to the people, using impactful storytelling techniques, including song, dance, costumes and masks. In this manner, it is said, shamans managed the psyches of their tribe, bringing them into a shared vision and empathic coherence.
Technoshamanism emerged from 1960’s counterculture, with its aspirations of spiritual technologies and altered states of consciousness, later evolving into transformational festivals and electronic dance music culture.
Modern-day shamans, or technoshamans, add powerful XR technologies to their toolkit. They are able to simulate and transmit their inner experience for participants, using phenomenological cinema and digital pharmacology techniques, plus modalities such as cultural activations, future-world building and narrative modeling.
Technoshamans are moving into the mainstream and can be found in art galleries, popular music entertainment, dance events, digital domes, music and art festivals, expos, game worlds and, of course, the metaverse. They use XR technologies to open hearts and minds by evoking awe, happiness, pleasurable moods and mindfulness states. Technoshamans model new ways of being, visualize hopeful futures and create shared immersive spaces that build community, connection, a sense of togetherness and unity consciousness.
Unlike filmmakers, who craft television and feature films, and unlike game developers and metaverse worldbuilders, the goal of the technoshaman is mindbuilding. This is the use of digital immersive experiences to evoke unique brain states and inspire new worldviews and new ways of being in their participants.
The technoshaman accomplishes this — not through contrived stories or experiences, philosophies, ideologies, propaganda, or branding, but by actually embodying these evolved states and transmitting them through the power of multisensory XR experiences.
The technoshaman seeks not just to entertain or inform, but to transform.
XR technologies can extend beyond simple storytelling into to the intentional use of multisensory immersive media to evoke specific states of consciousness – essentially, digital pharmacology. Potential applications include enhanced entertainment, education, leisure and lifestyle, enhanced well-being, spiritual ceremonies, and a wide variety of clinical applications.
There is a rich history of sensory experiences being used to alter consciousness. Music, for instance, has long been known as a powerful mood-altering agent capable of evoking a wide spectrum of emotions. Music can Visual stimulus such as natural environments – both real and virtual – can similarly affect physiological states as measured by blood pressure and muscle tension, and can even alter our perception of music. Other powerful multisensory modalities include haptics (touch) and aroma. induce or modify cognitive states and even alter our perception. Sound healing and vibroacoustic healing have both been proven effective. Simple nature sounds can improve health, increase positive affect, and lower stress and annoyance.
Transformational and mood-elevating experiences can take on many forms. Here is a partial list:
Awaken the mind
Open the Heart
Activate the Spirit
Soothe the Beast
Awaken the Senses
Energize and Engage
Entrain the Brain
Mindfulness states have a broad range of health benefits. Studies have shown decreased anxiety and depression, improved immune function, mitigation of cognitive decline due to aging, increased mental clarity and focus, improved heart health, improved mental health, increased longevity, improved self-confidence, improved moods, improved sleep, pain mitigation and more.
Likewise, studies have shown that psychedelic states may be efficacious in treating obsessive compulsive disorder, end-of-life psychological distress, alcohol and tobacco addiction and major depressive disorder. More research is needed to validate the degree to which XR experiences can evoke such states, however XR applications are emerging to guide patients receiving psychedelic therapies.
Awe is said to be one of the most powerful emotions that one can experience. In a partnership with Cirque du Soleil, Dr. Beau Lotto’s Lab of Misfits conducted an ambitious study on the emotion of awe. The findings suggest that awe motivates us to step forward into a world of uncertainty in search for answers, raises our risk tolerance, increases social behavior and can even reframe who we believe we were in the past. Multiple studies have also found evidence that experiencing awe makes us kinder and more generous. These are all good things for this day and age!
Practical application of digital pharmacology include the startup Tripp which offers VR meditative experiences, AppliedVR’s RelieVRx which offers FDA-authorized prescription-use VR-based pain reduction treatments, EvolVR which provides group VR meditation circles in the metaverse, and XR dome experiences such as The Journey: Live which delivers immersive visual musical sound baths along with guided meditation and a 360 film described as a “musical adventure of light, beauty, and enchantment.”
From Worldbuilding to Mindbuilding
As the ancient adage goes, with great power comes great responsibility. This leads us to the question: if used wisely, can the XR metaverse actually elevate human consciousness? Can worldbuilders craft virtual environments and experiences that make us happier and healthier as individuals and as a society?
We’re not talking about influencing participants with ideologies, philosophies, morality, political propaganda, brands, or even social causes for that matter. Can the power of XR help transform us into better people? More responsible citizens? Can it motivate us to unify in building a better world?
The need for transformation. We don’t need to dwell on the need for individual and social transformation – the signs are all around us. The last century of technological innovation has given us vast personal, computational and industrial power that continues to grow exponentially. Individuals can now mislead the masses with a single tweet. Nations have the power to annihilate cities with the press of a button. And our hunger for energy and material wealth is choking the planet in our own waste.
Gus Speth, author and top U.S. Advisor on Climate Change, put it this way:
Technology is but a natural extension of human consciousness and intent. We currently have the technological solutions needed to create an abundant world with clean, renewable power, materials, and resources. We have solutions for mitigating, and possibly reversing, climate change. And we have the capacity for altruism needed to overcome selfishness and act in our mutual best interests.
It’s time to transform – either consciously and intentionally, or involuntarily as a victim of our own ignorance.
If we are to create a better world – or even just maintain our present quality of life – a “cultural and spiritual transformation” within this generation would appear to be essential. We all get to go on this journey of transformation.
From Worldbuilding to Mindbuilding
Neuroscientist Dr. Paula Tallal said of neural plasticity, “You create your brain from the input you get.” Shuler and Bear showed that we not only create our brain we craft our perception—from the beliefs and expectations that we choose:
To the extent that our beliefs, expectations, or worldviews are substantially changed due to exposure to media (of any kind), we can legitimately say that our brains have been “rewired” by the experience.
Facilitating positive transformation on a personal, social, and ultimately, a global level is the highest expression of worldbuilding.
Transformative experiences substantially alter a person’s “possibility space” or life’s path—ideally in a positive sense. L.A. Paul describes transformative experience as:
Many of the best stories ever told involve personal transformations of the story’s characters—timeless story themes such as the criminal who redeems himself, the scrooge who is re-awakened or the hero who falls from grace. In XR we ourselves can become the character who is transformed.
Technoshaman: Maestro of transformation
In his 1985 book The Death and Resurrection Show: From Shaman to Superstar, Rogan Taylor traces our modern entertainment industry back to the earliest of all religions – shamanism. Shamans use rituals, feats, songs, stories, power objects and performances to “fine tune the psyche of his tribe.” Shamanism—like religion—was a “tool for both surviving and accomplishing transformation.” Rogan sees the shaman as a “maestro of transformation.”
While modern entertainment likely emerged from shamanism as Taylor suggests, he is quick to point out that, unlike today’s audiences,
Taylor also details how these storytelling elements of shamanism survived as modern showbusiness while leaving behind the deeper sacred, mystical and ecstatic dimensions of shamanism.
With XR’s ability to form a wideband neural interface between worldbuilder and participant, future masters of XR experience design—the technoshaman—can bring the power of awe, mystery and ecstasy back into mainstream arts and entertainment. The technoshaman is a maestro conducting the nervous systems of their audience.
However, like the shamans of old, the technoshaman must go within to access visions, or actually embody elevated, transcendent or other beneficial states of consciousness in order to transmit them. They must themselves transform if they are to inspire transformation in others.
A 360 cinematographer with a deep love of nature will transmit this love through their work. A musician with years of mindfulness practice will bring their audience into deep contemplative states. A visionary artist who journeys into altered states will evoke psychedelic experiences in their participants. When the technoshaman’s consciousness is laid bare for all to experience through multisensory XR technologies there is no room for inauthenticity. The artist becomes their work.
The technoshaman knows that worldbuilding is mindbuilding and has pledged to use their power wisely for the upliftment and evolution of human consciousness. And—as the power of the XR metaverse grows, turning us all into worldbuilders—let us use these tools wisely for the betterment of humankind