“Is it possible to experience being another lifeform?”
That’s the foundational question asked by Tree, an unusually immersive VR app developed at MIT Media Lab’s Fluid Interfaces Group. Featured on Prosthetic Knowledge, the short experience places you inside the bark of a tree in the Peruvian rainforest. But you don’t just get a view of the forest around you. You feel it, too.
Because of a suite of technologies dubbed TreeSense, as you rise from the dirt, sprouting from seedling into a full-grown tree, a fan blows wind over your skin, like the passing breeze. Your arms become branches–tracked by the Leap Motion gesture-control device–that allow you to cradle caterpillars and bugs like you’re a mother holding young. You can even feel these things crawling across your body, as the system deploys Electrical Muscle Stimulation (EMS)–the same technology behind those old ab exercising belts–to simulate tactility. Meanwhile, a smell machine pipes in what I can only assume is the fragrant green funk of a forest canopy after the rain.
I suspect that’s not entirely the case, though; that in fact, these first-person, insta-empathy experiences are low-hanging fruit. We’ve dreamed of experiences like flying through the sky as a bird for millennia. And now that we have the most rudimentary of VR tools, that’s already possible. So we’re knocking out these simulation experiences one-by-one: Be an eagle, or a mountain climber, or a race car driver, or whatever compelling virtual skull that you can stick your eyes behind. Frankly, it’s a bit obvious, isn’t it? Virtual reality lets you be something or someone else today, just about a year into this new medium’s release. Which implies to me, empathy is not the ultimate destination of VR; empathy is its earliest, and perhaps, foundational stepping stone, capable of making these simplistic experiences captivating at all.
But that doesn’t mean Tree looks (or feels) any less compelling. Especially that inevitable moment when people appear at your feet–beneath all of your impossible majesty–and you feel a rumble reverberate through your core. Because they’ve slowly started chopping you down.
Tree is not available for download. So far, it’s only been making the rounds at film festivals.