Click for WebGl version of our first VR

Click for WebGl version of our first VR

I was responsible for most of the textures and the bed assets. Our skybox texture is heavily photoshopped from this image.
Reika was responsible for the skybox image, 3d assets like the TV, crates, and trees. She also provided the netflix texture.
The WebGl version here has no VR. Limbo is meant to be viewed via Google Cardboard. Our apk can be downloaded here.
Our Valley App was featured in MIT Tech


Since mental health awareness has become a very large issue across college campuses, Reika and I became interested in engaging Penn students about the effects of mental illnesses. On a personal level, we wanted to understand how Depression and Anxiety affects perception. We wanted to try to pin down a visual representation of how it can distort a person's entire frame of time and space.

First, we created a survey. 

We wanted the questions to be broad enough to allow for introspection, but we also wanted to frame the questions in terms of the every-day. We felt that trying to understand what people dealt on a day-to-day process was very important, so we only had one question targeting how students may perceive their own mental struggles in broad terms. In doing so, we could compare the mundane process of living with depression/anxiety with how our volunteers perceived to be the worst part of living with mental illness. 

The feedback we got was incredibly illuminating. We got around 42 responses within about a week, and it was really amazing how dedicated and introspective the responses were. Some students wrote entire essays. We know 42 is still a small sample, but we were working on a very limited time budget and we only had a week to gather data and a few days to interpret, plan, and build everything. And even within that small sample, we found a lot of intersecting ideas that we had never considered before this project.


A lot of responses talked about time distortion. Some people felt that when they were going through an especially tough episode of depression, time itself would go out of wack. Some people felt like everyone else was moving in a faster timeline than they were, and the world was speeding away from them at a rapid pace. They were transported to a place outside of normal perceptions of time, and we wanted to show that. 

Memory gaps

Some of our respondents who have either suffered through long periods of depression or depression through their early developing years talked a lot about a distortion of memory. Some people informed us that looking back on really bad periods of depression, there are black holes where memories should be, or dark blurs. It's not that memories are forgotten or lost, but rather, given some of our responses, we get the feeling that during periods of depression memories are simply not formed at all.


This was the most ambiguous and fascinating aspect of our project because it might be the hardest part to explain to people who may have never had exposure to depression or anxiety. We believe loneliness and a sense of isolated helplessness are common descriptions people are familiar with when thinking about depression and anxiety, but the concept of isolation is complicated because they are both a symptom inflicted onto people who suffer with depression and a coping mechanism that people seem to need in order to feel more safe. Many respondents described how lonely and isolated they felt, but many also described how they wanted to isolate themselves and how much they went out of their way to avoid interacting with the world. Many described withdrawing from the world, or wanting to. And  yet, at the same time, the withdrawal became extremely crippling. This paradoxical element seems to jump-start a chain reaction of anxiety and depression which continuously feed into each other.

A divide in Perspective

We started out simply wanting to create a VR environment that allows people with no experience with depression to catch a snapshot or feeling of what living with depression and anxiety might feel like. But as we made our environment, we began to realize that what we were creating was much more interesting as a VR experience for people who already had experience with depression and anxiety. The VR was a visual way to help them begin expressing what living with depression is like for them individually. While we have a very intentional mood and feeling we wanted to get across, when we presented the VR a distinct pattern formed between how people interpreted our scene.

People with no experience with the VR focused more on the bleak aspects of what we created. They were more eager to call out the ominous feeling and describe being in the middle of nowhere as being trapped and isolated. This might be due to the fact that it's what they expect to see or what they expect depressed people to feel.

Yet people who have or had depression and anxiety focused much more on the tempting aspects of our environment. They wanted the isolation. To many, being in limbo was safety. To those same people, the limbo was also a false sense of security. They recognized that even when they wanted to feel safe and went out of their way to find isolation, there are reminders everywhere that they're just avoiding what they felt they needed to do. One girl told us we had made exactly what a depressed person wants, but then highlighted the fact that it's what she wants that's so problematic in her case. For us, this seemed to reveal something crucial about depression that we had not previously considered.

Another person we interviewed told us how he lost his ability to tell time. He lost control over remembering. He lost processes that allowed him to think, and in the end he even lost the ability to trust his instincts because he was never sure if they were a part of the depression. Depression and anxiety, for him, was a slow decline of agency. This is something that we did not understand when we started our project, and it's something that contributes to why there's such a clear divide in how people perceived our VR. It became a great conversation-starter and a more visual way to describe what living with depression can do to a person's perception.




Valley is currently unavailable as a WebGl app, but you can download the android apk here.

Song: Mother nature by mindtree.

We had two ideas for the Valley VR. Originally, we had planned to create an environment that literally revealed itself through people's engagement. However, because of everything we had discovered with our first VR, we thought it would be more meaningful to undercut that message with something a little more sobering. Since it became clear how difficult it was for some people with depression to interact and engage with the world, it would be insensitive and problematic to create a VR that gave users easy access to seeing our world through just a few clicks.

The more objects you click on, the faster it takes for the shaders to transition back into white. The more you try to engage with the environment, the faster everything goes back to nothing. You have to click faster and faster to catch a glimpse of what the world actually looks like, and you have to keep working at it until it becomes a repetitive task.

Reika created the core mechanics that allowed us to interact with objects in cardboard, and she kindly provided the house model. She did all the mountain textures as well as the bridge texture.

I created the custom blendshaders that allowed the materials to fade into color, and was responsible for the bridge animation. I also edited Reika's script so models faded back to white after clicking, and also eventually edited the script so the time it takes for each model to fade back to white depends on how many other models have also been clicked. I was also responsible for the textures of the trees, house, planets, and clouds.