Space—A Virtual Frontier: How to Design and Evaluate a Virtual Reality Experience of the Overview Effect

Peer reviewed: 
Yes, item is peer reviewed.
Scholarly level: 
Graduate student (PhD)
Final version published as: 

Stepanova ER, Quesnel D and Riecke BE (2019) Space—A Virtual Frontier: How to Design and Evaluate a Virtual Reality Experience of the Overview Effect. Front. Digit. Humanit. 6:7. DOI: 10.3389/fdigh.2019.00007

Date created: 
Virtual reality
Overview effect
Transformative experience
Design guidelines
Cognitive shift

A select small group of people have an amazing opportunity to see the Earth from a unique perspective—from space. The effect this experience has on an individual has been described as extraordinary and profound, consisting of a cognitive shift in worldview that leads to a deeper understanding of the fragility and vulnerability of our planet, and an increased feeling of connectedness. This experience, termed the “Overview Effect,” has been reported by many space-travelers. Its key outcome—an enhanced feeling of interconnectedness—contributes to both one’s well-being and the sense of responsibility for the Earth. If this profoundly positive experience could be made accessible to more people than just space-travelers, this might ultimately contribute to a healthier and more caring society, where more individuals deeply feel the interconnection of all living beings and responsibility for our collective future. Given virtual reality (VR) technology’s potential to induce experiences affecting an immersant in a similar way as a real experience, we see an opportunity to leverage this technology to attempt to elicit the Overview Effect as a virtual experience. Through a virtual installation, the experience could be made accessible to people around the world, and for researchers to study this otherwise rare phenomenon. This article builds the case for VR as a tool for inducing and studying the Overview Effect. It reviews the psychological research on the Overview Effect and awe, and proposes guidelines for: (1) the design of VR experiences to elicit an Overview Effect and (2) evaluation methods for assessing if, or to what degree, the experience was achieved. Finally, we discuss existing implementations of the Overview Effect in VR. Thus, we are making an applied contribution in the form of design guidelines, and contributions to knowledge in the form of a review of research related to the Overview Effect. We invite researchers and VR creators to utilize and expand on the guidelines proposed in this paper to design transformative VR experiences that induce positive change, and promote a feeling of connectedness and care for each other, and our Spaceship Earth.

Document type: 
Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC)
Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC)