Finalist 2023

Passing Electrical Storm

Shaun Gladwell / Stefan Greuter / Gerard Mulvany / Matthew Jigalin / Leigh Russell / Pete Grove

Passing Electrical Storms is a VR art installation simulating a journey from life to death through intimate and cosmic realms.

Passing Electrical Storms is an innovative virtual reality (VR) art installation by acclaimed artist Shaun Gladwell, designed to simulate the process of dying and to offer a journey through the known universe. Combining virtual reality, sensing technologies and tactile feedback, participants journey from cardiac arrest to brain death, moving through inner-body experiences and the vast cosmic expanses to the edge of our scientific understanding of the universe.

The interactive exhibition prompts deep contemplation of life, death, and our place in the universe, challenging traditional boundaries of art and human experience, presented through the immersive potential of VR technology.

Design Brief:

Passing Electrical Storms investigated how technology can facilitate a dialogue around mortality, and the fleeting, precious nature of life itself, ruminating on the notion of the scientific sublime through imaging the process of individual death within the context of a universal frame that has no known limit or end. The project investigated the use of immersive technology, sensors and tactile technology with the objective to develop an experiential pathway from life to death, meditating on the universes within and beyond the body.

The design challenge lay in creating an artwork that was a safe, respectful yet impactful simulation of this journey aimed to provide space for visitors to experience their mortality, an experience usually hidden from the living. The desired outcome was an emotionally stirring, deeply personal yet universally relatable experience that could elicit reactions varying from unsettling introspection to serene contemplation, all while maintaining the participants' well-being and comfort.

This project was developed by:

  • Shaun Gladwell
  • Stefan Greuter
  • Gerard Mulvany
  • Matthew Jigalin
  • Leigh Russell
  • Pete Grove

Design Process

The project underwent a meticulous design process. Gladwell drew inspiration from the famous short film ‘Powers of 10’ by Charles and Ray Eames and undertook extensive research into philosophical and scientific perspectives on death, drawing inspiration from thinkers like Baudrillard, Foucault, and Chalmers resulting in the conceptual design of the experience and exhibition space expressed in a briefing document.

During concept development, the team grappled with the delicate balance between crafting an immersive death experience without causing excessive distress to visitors. Research on palliative care helped us approach this responsibly and influenced the interaction design of the work and led to the inclusion of safety mechanisms to turn down the intensity of the haptic experience and controls to allow visitors to exit the simulation at any point, whilst also conceptualising the VR environment, experimenting with multiple sensory elements like visual aesthetics, haptic feedback, and sound design to create an immersive and transformative experience.

We involved participants in the user-testing phase to ensure safety and comfort, making adjustments based on their feedback through several iterations. This was pivotal in creating an experience that wasn't just technically sound but also emotionally resonant. This process allowed us to gauge user responses to the VR experience, and importantly, identify and mitigate any possible triggers of anxiety or panic.

The project achieved the design brief by successfully creating a meditative and introspective simulation of death that provoked visitors to contemplate their mortality and the essence of life. The final design was an amalgamation of art, user-centric design, high-end VR technology that was professionally executed and well-received, facilitated by a multidisciplinary team. The VR setup was in a designated space within the gallery, with the environment designed to resemble a hospital room equipped with heart rate monitors and VR headsets.

Design Excellence

The installation captured audiences with an interactive, aesthetically pleasing and highly functional sensorial immersive journey. The exhibition was inclusively designed to allow everyone to access and immerse themselves in the art installation, regardless of their unique physical requirements. One station was reserved to cater for visitors who use mobility aids. The design addressed functionality and safety within the exhibition environment by integrating easily cleanable surfaces on VR headsets and beds, as well as UVC cleaners at each station. Furthermore, controls were embedded into each station that to stop the simulation and to adjust the haptic intensity of the experience.

The installation space was designed with a holistic user journey in mind. Visitors were first greeted with an environment reminiscent of a hospital space, priming them for the experience to come. Clear explanatory text outlined the process, while well-trained invigilators facilitated the participants' engagement. The immersive experience was enabled by specially designed beds that vibrated to simulate a heart attack and employed wind effects to recreate the sensation of floating in space. This orchestrated arrangement of sensory stimuli delivered a truly immersive out-of-body journey. After the experience, invigilators supported visitors in returning safely to the exhibition space, ensuring a holistic and smooth journey from start to finish.

Presented at the Melbourne Now exhibition from 24 March - 20 August 2023 at the Ian Potter Centre, National Gallery of Victoria, Passing Electrical Storms was a unique intersection of art, technology, and human experience. By demonstrating how art, technology, and human experience can coalesce into a singular immersive experience, the work not only elevates the bar for design excellence in Victoria, but also represents a significant contribution to the international creative landscape.

Design Innovation

Death is a crucial concept for humanity, as it represents an inescapable aspect of the human experience with profound implications on our understanding of life, emotions, and relationships. Applications in which users experience a virtual death however are believed to enable emotional growth, empathy, and education and potentially improves end-of-life care experiences while encouraging responsible design practices and addressing critical ethical considerations.

Exploring the concept of death in VR offers users a unique, immersive experience that enables users to safely engage with mortality-related scenarios, fostering empathy and self-reflection, however, very little is known about how to design such experiences. This project used a research-through-design approach with input from an interdisciplinary team to explore the design through a fusion of art, technology, and science to provide visitors to the exhibition with a unique opportunity to explore the concept.

This simulation is a world-first, enabling a unique exploration of a universal yet deeply personal and often taboo experience. The incorporation of personal biometrics, video capture and tactile feedback bridges the gap between the physical and virtual to provide visitors with a deeply personal experience. The use of VR technology in this context was groundbreaking as it went beyond VR’s traditional entertainment applications and delved into existential and philosophical explorations.

The experience contributes to the broader understanding of the benefits and potential risks associated with the use of VR in the exploration of mortality. Moreover, the project extends existing work by updating and expanding upon the visuals of the famous "Powers of 10" short film, using a game engine to render immersive 3D visualisations of the universe and the human microcosm through depth and space that traditional media cannot replicate. The design is deeply user-centred, considering individual needs and responses, especially around the sensitive topic of mortality.

Design Impact

Passing Electrical Storms is significant due to its potential for broad implications in the arts, technology, psychology, and science fields. This project provides a new medium for the artistic expression of mortality, inviting contemplation of the universes within and beyond the body. Exhibited at one of Australia’s most prestigious venues, Passing Electrical Storms is one of 200 extraordinary works exhibited at the second edition of the ground-breaking exhibition Melbourne Now in 2023 at The Ian Potter Centre: National Gallery of Victoria, visited by approximately half a million visitors.

The VR experience "Passing Electrical Storms" has had a significant media impact, garnering international attention from outlets like the New York Post, UK's Evening Standard, India's Republic World, and TikTok. A Herald Sun article describes the exhibit as both "meditative and unsettling," and notes the crowds of visitors waiting to participate. NDTV reported on its "calming" and "unnerving" nature, while other media outlets highlighted varied reactions ranging from terror to excitement.

The project design adheres to the principles of a Circular Economy by employing a sustainable life cycle. The project used second-hand wiring for the Arduino circuits, the printed parts used compostable plastic made by Aurarum in Melbourne and the virtual reality experience consisted of software, that can be transferred and updated, minimising physical materials and thereby reducing waste and environmental impact. Now part of Museum Victoria's collection, the exhibition can be re-exhibited and loaned, expanding its life cycle and access. It aligns with the museum's commitment to public good, international collaboration, and cultural sensitivity.

Passing Electrical Storms contributes to Victoria's vibrant design and creative culture. The project's realisation was a result of a dynamic collaboration between visionary artist Shaun Gladwell, Deakin Motion Lab, and the National Gallery of Victoria representing a significant showcase of leading design in Victoria.

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