Imagine during work, when you’re feeling the walls are caving in on you, that you can just run to the woods. No packing, no cars, no bosses. Just five minutes on the clock to walk up a mountain and hear the wind against the trees.
Somewhere, a disembodied voice asks you if you feel a connection to the nature around you.
At Toronto’s IIDEX, a design and architecture conference, futurist Stuart Candy let crowds demo the NaturePod, a mock (read: not a real product) virtual reality program that lets strung-out workers take a simulated walk in the woods.
It’s so close to being believable that people actually bought into it. And that was the point.
The device, which looks like a cross between an optometrist’s phoropter and a massage chair, works using an AirVR device. The headset allows you to turn an iPhone 6 or an iPad into a VR screen. You basically sit down in the chair, plant your face onto the headset and take a guided walk through the woods. You can see some of that in the video below:
The project is a joint effort between Interface, one of the world’s largest rug manufacturers and Situation Lab, a two-person collective consisting of Candy, a professor at OCAD University, and Jeff Watson, an artist, game designer, and assistant professor at the University of Southern California.
Candy tells Tech Insider that Interface wanted to help make something that would be a conversation starter. For a company that has its roots firmly set in interior design, funding this mock product would be a way of virtually stepping outside its usual boundaries.
“There’s a lot of research coming out that’s quantifying the health, productivity benefits contributed by biophilic design intervention,” said Nadine Gud, director of sustainability strategy at Interface. “That’s all about how you recreate the experience of being in nature inside the built environment.”
And while the goal for Interface was to facilitate a positive discussion about bringing nature into the workplace, the actual act of sticking yourself into a simulated natural environment had dystopian underpinnings. Like, would you even feel comfortable resorting to doing that?
“It wasn’t about product, sales, or bottom line business concerns — but about social and technological concerns that affect everybody,” Candy says. “The reason to do that is so you can have a much higher quality conversation about the issues in the scenario than if it’s just a thought experiment.”
And people, disconcertingly enough, liked it.
“A clear majority of people really liked the product and quite a number of them wanted to buy it,” Candy says. “Which was funny at one level, and disturbing at another level because we knew we were walking a fine line between parody and reality. I think that line turned out to be finer than we expected.”
Maybe it wasn’t that surprising that people mistook it for a real product. The team incorporated real research when pitching the NaturePod as a real product to conference-goers. In a world where CES attendees are often sold snake oil as real futures, there were few details in the NaturePod’s pitch that would seem totally out of place.
“Embedding the VR into the massage chair’s face pad was a perfect way of showcasing how natural health and wellbeing are meeting the hyped up world of VR and big data,” Nourhan Hegazy, a designer on the NaturePod team tells me in an email.
“And the reference to the electrodes that are scanning your brain, a growth in urbanisation, coupled with a corporate sales pitch were all elements that were meant to both inform and create contradictions for participants,” she says.
In a truly dystopian scenario, people might not even go outside anymore for their break — companies could invest in some sort of VR project that takes the trouble out of giving their employees vacations, adequate breaks, and proper access to mental health benefits. That sort of future is terrifying to think about, but even moreso is a present that’s enabling it.