How to live for a month in virtual reality

Artist Mark Farid will spend 28 days as someone else in 'Seeing I'


Next year, artist Mark Farid wants to give up a month of his life to virtual reality. If a crowdfunding campaign succeeds, he’ll spend 28 days in a gallery, wearing a VR headset and a pair of noise-canceling headphones. For the duration of the show, all he’ll experience will be video and audio captured by a complete stranger, going about their daily life. When they eat, he’ll eat. When they sleep, he’ll sleep. As much as modern technology permits, he will let his individual identity evaporate.

This isn’t escapism. He’s not trying to live as a famous actor, or a star athlete, or someone from a vastly different culture or time period. Spending minutes in virtual reality can be uncomfortable, let alone days. So why do it? “It’s to see if who we are is an individual identity, or if there is just a cultural identity that kind of takes us on,” says Farid. “I’ve grown up in the city my whole life. So everything that I’ve seen — the square gardens that we have, the tree that’s planted in that specific place, the way the wind travels down the road ... all of that is artificially created,” he says. “Every experience that we’re having is synthetic.”

Seeing I

Farid during his 24-hour test run, Alone Together. (Arebyte Gallery)

His project, called Seeing I, isn’t just meant to test the limits of artificiality; it’s also meant to bring him as close as possible to looking through someone else’s eyes. An "Input," as Farid calls the person whose life he’ll see, will spend a month wearing a pair of glasses that can capture 180-degree video and 3D audio. The data for each day will be looked over for glitches or gaps, then sent to Farid six days later, giving assistants time to prepare the right meals and gather other materials they’ll need to make the experience as realistic as possible. Visitors might see him at the gallery, but he won’t know they’re there.

When he comes out, it will be with someone else’s recent memories and, he hopes, a little of their perspective on life. The four-week timeframe was chosen in part because "it’s not proven, but well-documented, that we lose habits and develop new habits after three weeks." This rule has been debunked multiple times, but its origins fit the project quite well: it’s based on a factoid from ‘60s self-help writer and plastic surgeon Maxwell Maltz, who believed it took his patients 21 days to adjust to a new face. Farid has all that, plus an extra week, to start seeing this stranger as himself.

In early 2014, after a year of work on the project, Farid tried a 24-hour test run called Alone Together at the Arebyte gallery in London. Organizers picked a surrogate that he’d never met, and he watched the recording through an Oculus Rift in a nearly bare gallery space, staff on hand to spoon cereal into his mouth or hand him squares of chocolate. People can apply for the spot in his longer show, with only a few basic conditions. The Input must be a heterosexual man — despite the goal of living as someone else, Farid wants some basic level of familiarity — and he has to be living with a wife or girlfriend. "That’s more so he narrates his own life," he says. "If you’re living alone, you’ll just go to the shop and buy some milk, but I won’t know what you’re doing. If you live with somebody, you go ‘I’m going to the shop to buy some milk, do you want anything?’"

"Every experience that we're having is synthetic."

The test run’s title references a book by academic Sherry Turkle, who argued that technology has made meaningful interactions harder even as it creates new ways to communicate. Farid effectively inverted the book’s thesis: ideally, technology would help him feel closer to his surrogate than he ever could in real life. But that sense of immersion proved elusive. "He was reading or on the computer a lot," says Farid. "He went to the pub at one point… it was supposed to be a blind date, but she stood him up."

In a strangely recursive turn, the most engaging moment was watching the man play video games — "I started going pow pow pow pow without knowing," he says, mimicking gunfire. If he gets to do a 28-day version, Farid is going to give whoever’s selected a few exciting tasks to work into his daily life, like bungee jumping or going to a soccer match. "[I want] to see if I can genuinely believe in this — like, my heart’s going crazy and my hands are sweating," he says. "I can’t fake that."

Seeing I

Machines to be another

Farid says that his project is inspired by readings in philosophy and by the work of Josh Harris, an internet entrepreneur and artist who was (often disturbingly) fascinated with total, 24-hour surveillance. Harris’ best-known project was a 1999 social experiment held in a Manhattan bunker wired with cameras — the increasingly chaotic month-long party, described as "Orwellian" and cultlike, was finally shut down by police at the turn of the millennium. Harris later tried broadcasting his own apartment while living with a girlfriend; the relationship fragmented and Harris suffered a nervous breakdown.

But it also has roots in existing VR art and academia. The premise is similar to The Machine to be Another, an art project that lets participants "swap bodies" with each other via the Oculus Rift. And there’s at least some precedent for VR marathons. In October, two University of Hamburg researchers published a paper documenting the effect of prolonged stints in VR. Similar to Farid’s early test, they asked a subject to wear a head-mounted display and "live" in a virtual environment for 24 hours, with periodic 10-minute breaks. The experience was uncomfortable — moving in VR induced serious nausea — but it was reportedly effective. After four hours, despite the fact that he was staring at a close-up screen, the subject "reported the illusion of staying in a virtual sphere" with a 15-foot radius. At several points during the test, he "was confused about being in the [virtual environment] or in the real world," mixing up events between the two.

The subject "reported the illusion of staying in a virtual sphere"

An even more surreal case is Becoming Dragon, a 15-day performance art project held at the University of California, San Diego in 2008. A team led by artist Micha Cárdenas created a "mixed reality" environment with position-tracking cameras and a head-mounted display, running a patched version of Second Life. Drawing parallels with her life as a transgender woman, Cárdenas used the headset to "transition" into living full-time as a dragon avatar in Second Life, performing poetry and giving talks in virtual reality. While Cárdenas removed the headset for bathroom breaks and sleep, something Farid won’t be doing, she still spent months working up to using it in nearly continuous 15- or 16-hour sessions.

During Becoming Dragon, she says, she began thinking of Second Life as her real location, excitedly welcoming friends when they entered and becoming entranced by its "natural" forests and oceans. But she also forgot to eat or drink for long stretches, and her long-distance vision deteriorated — trying to look at anything far away left her dizzy and nauseous. Her mental condition suffered as well. "As the performance proceeded, I felt slower, it became harder to concentrate and harder to remember facts from real life," she wrote afterwards.

Cárdenas’ long-distance vision recovered within two days, although it took five before her eyes stopped periodically forgetting to move when her head did. All the after-effects — including her forgetfulness and nausea — were gone within a week. Granted, the headset she used was primitive compared to the Oculus Rift or other present-day VR options, and it’s not clear what problems Farid might experience. Frank Steinicke, one of the researchers behind the 24-hour experiment, said he saw no long-term effects on the subject then; his primary concern for Farid was motion sickness. Jeremy Bailenson, founding director of Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, told me he’d been contacted about the project. "I had one piece of advice for them: ‘Talk to an optometrist,’" he said.

Seeing I

Farid says he’s spoken to numerous psychiatrists, psychologists, and neuroscientists about the risks and possibilities. Among them is Professor Simon Baron-Cohen of Cambridge University, who suggested a few possibilities: the project might make him more empathetic by focusing his attention on others, cause delusions, or prove that the brain is surprisingly capable of accommodating new kinds of input.

Because Farid might adapt. He connects his project with experiments by University of Innsbruck psychologist Theodor Erismann, who asked research subjects to wear mirrored goggles that made the world appear upside down. Over a period of weeks, his reports noted, wearers slowly began to compensate, eventually seeing their reversed vision as nearly normal — his assistant went from turning cups upside down to catch water to competently riding a bicycle.

"I'm not going to harm my long-term life for this project."

Farid’s gotten a number of conflicting opinions about the effects of his project, and he’s attempting to err on the side of caution. "This is not an endurance test," he says. "If it’s going too far and going too bad, and are going to be detrimental things to my health, or eyesight, or mental health ... I’ll be told to take the virtual reality glasses off, and the project ends there. I’m not going to harm my long-term life for this project." He'll be observed by a psychologist, and whatever the results, they'll later become part of a Seeing I documentary.

Outside his experiment, Farid says his best experience with virtual reality was watching the Sandra Bullock space thriller Gravity, and he’s optimistic about the technology after Oculus’ buyout by Facebook — "Zuckerberg obviously has a plan, and he knows what he’s going to do with it." For all that VR is described as the medium of wish fulfillment, though, Seeing I seems like a grueling excursion, not a pleasure trip. It’s the flip side of complete empowerment in a virtual world — Farid will give up any sense of agency or self-determination, choosing to hover, ghostlike, in someone else’s life.

If he succeeds, is something longer on the horizon?

"No. Definitely not," he says. "Maybe it will turn out that there is no mental health risk in the end, but I still wouldn’t want to do it. Being isolated for 28 days, without anything to validate anything or human companionship... 28 days is actually more than enough."