Design for Dasein: Integrity and experience in virtual reality therapy (VRT)

In preparation for the development of the interactive thesis project, theoretical research from a variety of fields, mostly interdisciplinary, was consolidated. Remaining to be more thoroughly explored however was the potential effectiveness of the planned design, a multimodal therapeutic experience mediated by technology based on holistic health practices, especially in comparison to that of its ‘real’, physical, in-person counterpart. Visiting with practitioners of these healing modalities invests the thesis research with a sensitivity to bring to technology an authentic experience that keeps in tact the integrity of the therapy. The concept of Dasein, borrowed from Martin Heidegger (Being and Time, 1996), was investigated through an in-class residency where it was applied to technologies that are perceived as playing a pivotal role in the disengagement of users from the ‘real’ world, presumably coinciding with a lack of interpersonal communication deemed essential in personal development (Turkle, 2012). Disengagement was understood, for example, as a user feeling more connected to a virtual world rather than his or her real world, resulting in the avoidance of real world interaction.

One possible approach to address this disengagement was to bring technology as close to the body as possible, augmenting the senses in order to strengthen one’s presence in the real world. Designing multimodal, multisensorial interactive experiences with technology seems like a natural progression in human-computer interaction that has intended to build on deepening sense of presence, going beyond screen-based media that tends to give priority to visual forms of immersion (Jallouli and Moreau, 2010)—requiring users to focus on the screen as if it were a portal into the virtual. Whether augmented reality used in this vain helps alleviate disengagement simply because it situates the virtual in the real (possibly blurring the division of the real-virtual dichotomy) remains largely undeterminable and perhaps rightfully so given the highly subjective interpretations expected from users undertaking such an experience. The concept of Dasein, as it relates to the development of the thesis project, will be evaluated as a designer’s ability to reproduce the real ambience present in physical, human-human therapy while the therapist employs healing techniques—faithful reproduction is thus taken as a measure of sense of presence, which is, in turn, reflective of the effectiveness of the technology-mediated therapy. In an effort to bring holistic health practices to technology in a way that offers at least a similar degree of effectiveness to their administration in a non-technology-mediated environment, there are functional and technical considerations to be made by designers. This line of thought presents the important distinction between porting a real-world experience to technology (and, by extension, the virtual world) simply because it can be done versus leveraging the affordances of technology that can both maintain the experience’s effectiveness and enhance it.

It is important to note that although the term Dasein refers to the feeling of ‘being there’ (Being and Time, 1996), the approach to analysis taken in this short paper will consider Dasein as a capacity that can be achieved by a designer by uncovering the details that make an experience effective when translating real world experiences to the virtual world. An example that speaks directly to the thesis project would include the use of a tone generator to play sounds at specific frequencies at which they are considered effective for healing certain parts of the body (Mason 2006; Kim, Park, and Kim, 2008). In a real, in-person therapy session using tuning forks or Tibetan singing bowls, which naturally resonate at certain desired frequencies, there is no accounting for such technicalities as these qualities are embedded within the tools themselves. Users experiencing sound therapy in this way may not consciously realize a difference, however it is still a part of the experience and requires simulation in the virtual world to fulfill both conscious and unconscious forms of Dasein. It is therefore crucial that the designer determines the best method for successfully porting the real to the virtual, especially in the case of controversial holistic health practices that serve therapeutic benefits. Arguably, it is the case that one’s experience takes priority over what is real and what is virtual. In this case what becomes important is the realization of design goals—it is almost expected that in VRT one of the design goals will be effectiveness of therapy.

Virtual reality therapy simulations are not usually designed as complex replicas modeled after the real world—this is rarely possible due to technical constraints and feasibility concerning the time required and design goals to be achieved. It is then important to observe that sense of presence, which VR has successfully been able to achieve over more than a decade of its use (Sanchez-Vives and Slater, 2005), is not completely reliant on realistic portrayals, but rather the significance of the circumstances or objectives presented to the user in the moment. Presence, after all, is believed to be a neuropsychological phenomenon, without which it would be impossible for the nervous system to distinguish between an external world and an internal one (Riva et. al, 2004). In order to foster Dasein, this separation of worlds requires the shift from meaning-as-comprehensibility to meaning-as-significance; the assessment of whether an event fits with our view of the world (in that it is just, controllable, and not random) and the assessment of the value or worth of an event (Riva et. al, 2004). This is an interesting link to Edwin L. Hersch’s use of the “primacy of cares” (A Phenomenologist’s View of the Omnipresence of the Evaluative in Human Experience, 2008); perhaps humans are more present in the reality more relevant to their own goals. If VRT is to be effective in its employment, it is not only the designer’s duty to simulate all necessary details pertinent to the ‘real’ experience that the virtual acts as an alternative to, but also the administrator’s duty to determine the relevance of the VRT, along with its contextual goals, to the user—shared of course with the responsibility of the user to want VRT treatment.

VRT simulations have been useful in treating individuals with fear of flying on airplanes (Rothbaum, 2006) and military personnel recovering from PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome) (Rizzo et. al, 2006). The general approach to VRT in these experiments has been to virtually situate the user in an experience that parallels a real world interaction, one that the user finds problematic. While the sense of presence, or Dasein factor, is intentionally sought out, therapists inform users that while the experience may translate to the real world, harmful events will not affect the user’s physical reality. This is crucial in bringing the user into the virtual simulation, explained by the pseudo-paradox that although the situation is not ‘real’, the experience can be real. In these cases, problem areas to be worked on through VRT were specific. For the interactive thesis project, the problem area is much broader as the simulation is intended to supplement psychotherapy for anxiety, stress, and inability to attend to the present moment outside of mental chatter. As a result, the context to be created by the simulation remains vague and more abstract than current clinical examples.

In moving towards the initial stages of user testing and feedback, the thesis research will look to investigate relevance of VRT employment to user cares and goals. While it is important to keep in tact the critical theory that initially inspired the thesis project, briefly: the possible efficiency achieved by the future cyborg to experience more natural forms of healing through a computer on demand, it is also useful to focus the intentions and applicability of the interactive project because it does rely on holistic health practices being computed in ways that extend beyond superficial simulation (this consideration alone calls for effectiveness testing, regardless of the controversial views on holistic health approaches to wellbeing).


Heidegger, Martin, and Joan Stambaugh. Being and Time: A Translation of Sein Und Zeit. Albany, NY: State University of New York, 1996.

Hersch, Edwin L. “A Phenomenologist’s View of the Omnipresence of the Evaluative in Human Experience: Knowledge as a Founded Mode and the Primacy of Care.” Fact and Value in Emotion. Ed. Louis C. Charland and Peter Zachar. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Pub., 2008. 199-215.

Jallouli, Jihen, and Guillaume Moreau. “An Immersive, Multisensory and Interactive Approach for Landscape Study in Virtual Environments: The Wind Turbines’ Case.” Cressound Grenoble (2010).

Mason, Russ. “The Sound of Healing: Interviews with Jonathan Goldman, B.Sc., M.A., and Suzanne Jonas, B.A., M.A., Ed.D.” Alternative and Complementary Therapies 12.2 (2006): 81-85.

Riva, G., C. Botella, G. Castelnuovo, A. Gaggioli, F. Mantovani, and E. Molinari. “Cybertherapy in Practice: The VESPY Project Updated.” Cybertherapy: Internet and Virtual Reality As Assessment and Rehabilitation Tools for Clinical Psychology and Neuroscience (2004).

Rizzo, A., J. Pair, K. Graap, B. Manson, P. McNerney, B. Wiederhold, M. Wiederhold, and J. Spira. “A Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy Application for Iraq War Military Personnel with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder: From Training to Toy to Treatment.” NATO Advanced Research Workshop on Novel Approaches to the Diagnosis and Treatment of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (2006).

Rothbaum, Barbara Olasov, Et Al. “Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy and Standard (in Vivo) Exposure Therapy in the Treatment of Fear of Flying.” Behavior Therapy 37.1 (2006): 80-90.

Sanchez-Vives, Maria V., and Mel Slater. “Opinion: From Presence to Consciousness through Virtual Reality.” Nature Reviews Neuroscience 6.4 (2005): 332-39.

Tae Sook Kim, Jeong Sook Park, and Myung Ae Kim. “The Relation of Meditation to Power and Well-Being.” Nursing Science Quarterly 21.1 (2008): 49-58.

Turkle, Sherry. Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. Basic Books, 2012.

One Comment

  1. Henry Moller

    A lot of VRT had focused on presenting aversive or anxiogenic stimuli, or measurement of pathology. The “killer ap”, however is to create positive/hedonic and stress-reducing environments that provide tangible therapeutic relief. Any progress made on this front, will truly move the field ahead .

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