What role can technology play in bringing our thoughts and actions into long-term harmony with nature? The virtual reality and meditation project by game design students Oliver Sahli and Emma McMillin addresses this question and shows how a complex fungal network can emerge from humming, buzzing and quiet breathing.
Frederic Poppenhäger: What is the idea behind “Breath Beneath”?
Emma McMillin: It is a virtual reality and meditation project, developed for the Design Biennale Zurich 2021. We take our visitors into the fortress vaults under Zurich’s Old Botanical Garden, where we have set up our exhibition. Down there they control a fictitious fungal network with our application. Meditative action in the form of gentle hand movements, steady breathing and constant humming enables visitors to empathize with the life of a complex fungal network in an immersive experience. The players look at their own hands and see the fungi growing out of them in a virtual environment. At the same time, they control growth through their humming.
Technology and meditation: How do these two completely different elements of your project function together?
Oliver Sahli: Technology helps us to see, understand and experience the world and natural processes from a completely different perspective. The calm sounds and the atmospheric environment of Breath Beneath create a meditative experience. In addition, controlling fungal growth requires a lot of concentration and control — as the fungi only grow if there is a steady humming noise.
What role does silence play in your project?
Emma McMillin: Breath Beneath requires visitors to become aware of the importance of sound and how it affects their environment. Fungi are crucial to forest health, yet are often overlooked because they live underground and are almost invisible to the human eye. Our exhibition concept intends to illumine these organisms and their role in an ecosystem — in a very abstract way, of course.
What is particularly exciting about working with immersive technologies?
Oliver Sahli: Working with immersive technologies requires a good understanding of how spaces affect audiences. We were not exactly sure what was possible until we visited fortress vaults under the Old Botanical Garden and made 3D scans of the area. The environment for an immersive experience needs to be spatially designed so that everything runs smoothly and the audience is almost unaware of the underlying equipment, cables and software. Plunging, in the sense of immersion, is a state of cognitive absorption, in which one loses one’s corporeality, so to speak. The opposite feeling is that of total presence. Balancing these two qualities is key to achieving something magical.
What kind of reactions are you hoping for?
Emma McMillin: We hope that visitors are thrilled by their encounter with a strange world beneath the earth. Moreover, sounds are not very often used as control elements for digital experiences or games. This makes our exhibition concept unique.