In an ideal future, trips beyond the atmosphere are easy(ish) and cheap(ish). Humans will regularly slip the surly bonds of Earth, rocket up to inflatable space hotels, and stare out at space, up at the Moon, and down at Earth.
And that view–of planet Earth set in a vast, merciless void–will change humanity’s view of itself. If humans can see themselves not as beings with day jobs on an Earth full of national borders, but as comrades together alone in space, they will clean up their act and think bigger-picture and longer-term. Or at least that’s the hope of the Overview Institute, an organization that wants to both understand that existential shift–called the overview effect–and make it happen for more people. The hope: That the overview effect will change the world.
This may sound like a nutty idea. But astronaut after astronaut has spoken about how going to space did have that psychological impact, first chronicled in author Frank White’s book, The Overview Effect. And even for those left on Earth, seeing the iconic Earthrise image–a shot of our planet viewed from Apollo 8’s orbit around the Moon–changed things. Many credit that image with starting the environmental movement, because Earth looked so fragile and blue and in need of care and protection.
The Overview Institute wants people to get that feeling again. Its co-founder David Beaver has described plans to scan the brains of space tourists, to try to map what happens when they emotionally encounter Earth-as-orb. And then they’ll try to replicate the neuro-experience with virtual reality.
A New Space Age
Beaver first heard of the overview effect in the early 2000s, when he attended a meeting about private space travel in Washington, DC. The space enthusiast had made his name by inventing a technology called The Magic Stage–the “first virtual-reality theater technology,” Beaver calls it. It incorporated graphical special effects–like costume and scenery changes–into live performances, kind of like a green screen for thespians and musicians. It went out with the dot-com boom. But it got him thinking about how the mind interacts with media.
It also made him some celebrity friends–including some in the burgeoning New Space industry. After the Washington meeting, he began to hear more and more about this overview effect. But these tech tycoons–they had what he calls a “media blank spot.” “This issue of how do you capture and change worldviews was not in their toolkit,” he says. “I quickly saw I had a niche.”
In 2008, he filled that niche and co-founded the Overview Institute with 21 of his closest friends, a mishmash of space and movie nerds that would make NASA’s social media team smile. There’s White, the term-coiner; Dan Curry, the visual effects supervisor/producer for some Star Treks; Douglas Trumbull, who worked on special effects for 2001: A Space Odyssey, Blade Runner, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind; astronaut and Moon-walker Edgar Mitchell; Loretta Hidalgo Whitesides, who heads part of Virgin Galactic’s nonprofit arm; George Whitesides, CEO of Virgin Galactic; and Anousheh Ansari, the first female private astronaut and the co-founder of the Ansari X-Prize.
“The Overview Institute allows us to share that experience together and also share it with everyone around the world, because only a little bit over 500 people have been able to have this experience,” says Ansari.
But someday soon, Beaver says, tens of thousands of people will be staring down saying, “Oh, my god, we live on a planet.”
Scaling Up to Look Down
Or not. No matter how “cheap” space travel becomes, it probably won’t seem cheap–for a long time, if ever–to, say, freelance science writers, people in the Earthbound hospitality industry, or anyone in almost any country in the world. So, postulated: Lots more people will be going to space, but they’ll mostly be rich tourists and privately trained astronauts. Wouldn’t it be a shame if the wealthy got not just better houses and cars but also some smug philosophy about how we’re all one species on a pale blue dot even if they have better houses and cars? Can the rest of us get the Overview Effect even if we can’t cough up ticket money?
Beaver thinks so. He hopes to create virtual reality experiences that can cognitively change those of us who have to stay on the ground–and projection and simulation technology may be catching up to the organization’s ambitions. The backend has come a long way since the first Overview Effect conference, which WIRED covered in 2007. Beaver’s real expertise is, after all, creating convincing visual representations of things that aren’t actually real. And many of his collaborators have worked on high-impact special effects or have had their minds melted by space.
Beaver agrees that translating IRL to VR isn’t simple. But Mel Slater, a professor of virtual environments at University College London, says maybe the experience doesn’t have to be the same to have the same effect. He can imagine a VR scenario that creates similar psychological shifts, even if donning some goggles and virtually flying away from your home planet will never truly be like flying away from your home planet. The verisimilitude doesn’t actually matter that much, he says, “because people won’t know what the real experience is like. If this is thought of as a way to impart emotional information, a set of feelings, then it could be very powerful.”
Beaver hopes to bridge that gap with really good virtual reality and a dash of science. He and the Overview Institute are starting neurological studies with collaborators at the University of Pennsylvania in Pittsburgh and Andrew Newberg, a “neurotheologist” at Thomas Jefferson University and Hospital, who researches the effects of mystical and spiritual experiences on the brain. His research includes “brain scans of people in prayer, meditation, rituals, and trance states”–and also, apparently soon, people meeting their planet for the first time, which I would argue is a scientific and not a spiritual awakening, but I’m not the neurotheologist. The latest paper on his website has the subtitle “Awe and Self-Transcendent Experience in Space Flight,” which would probably make most of today’s astronauts roll their eyes.
The team plans to map the brain activity of people in space–starting perhaps with high-altitude balloon flights like those offered by Worldview and Zero to Infinity. They’ll do the same as people watch lo-fi space videos on laptops and “immersive” virtual-reality experiences.
As soon as they have all that data, they plan to compare, and see how the brain’s response to the overvieweffect4real might be different from that of its digital counterparts, with the goal of refining the latter so it can match the former. After that, says Beaver, they hope to “drop simulation centers into multiple population centers to allow as many people as possible to have that experience.” (Easy.)
But whether there’s an “overview signature” inside the skull, and whether these guys can not only extract but also induce it remains to be seen. It seems pretty likely, though, that they could create a sick VR of space that would make viewers feel awe, and maybe even self-transcendence, even if they would never use those words themselves, and even if the experience wasn’t exactly like being an astronaut.
OK, so imagine this world: Maybe lots of people honeymoon on the far side of the Moon. Maybe space hotels have special weeks where plebeians can buy deeply discounted tickets to stay in the cargo hold. Or maybe everyone lives within an hour’s drive of one of Beaver’s uber-effective simulation centers. Will the world actually change? Could a philosophical shift actually alter human behavior?
It would have to push past inertia and our species’s self-centered, self-interested, short-term, tribe-centric tendencies. And “Is that possible?” may be a bigger and harder question than whether the overview effect is achievable from the ground–and perhaps a challenge for the Overview Institute’s next charter.