Overview 2020

Experience the project here

What does a collection of stories about isolation and social distancing look like? What do we gain when we experience those stories from a cosmic perspective?

Abstract

The overview effect is a cognitive shift observed in astronauts who see the entire Earth from space. There is something about experiencing the whole planet from a cosmic perspective that strengthens the connection to humanity, life, and peace.

In the current climate of social distancing and isolation, can we use this inherently optimistic cognitive shift to help build empathy and connect to others through a shared experience.

Overview is a web-based meditation experience that explores its namesake effect in the context of the global COVID-19 crisis, specifically through the lens of stories about the day-to-day isolation experience.


Context

The original version of this project focused on an immersive VR experience to explore the overview effect in an Earth-bound audience.

NYU going remote created logistic problems in that I lost access to VR equipment, but more so it highlighted how inaccessible the original project was. My pivot to a web-based project was both pragmatic but also ideological, since I wanted to share the stories of as many people as possible, not just those with fancy headsets.

Much of the research I had done – into perspective and scale in VR, shaders, what experiencing the world from above felt like – still applied on a screen, though to lesser degrees.

The original context of the piece was experience-driven: what happens when we experience the world from space. Influences included VR pieces about scale and perspective and media about the overview effect. The context in which the project has landed though is a story-driven one; the most compelling part is listening to the stories of others and building a world-scale perspective of personal isolation life.


Technical Overview

The project is built in Unity and runs on the Unity WebGL engine. The WebGL application talks to both a browser application that handles audio recording, and the Apache server which stores the application and message data.

The Earth is rendered with a custom shader that uses a noisy UV map to sample a medium-resolution texture of the globe (and clouds). This results in a globe that looks decently realistic from afar but becomes painterly stylistic when close. This was my solution to avoid a pixelated experience without requiring hundreds of gigabytes of textures.