Diving decompression and VR aftercare

Micaela Mantegna
13 min readFeb 8, 2023

When divers return to the surface, they have to follow a process to reintroduce their bodies to the atmosphere. To avoid decompression sickness, during their ascent divers make either a series of stops (staged decompression), or follow a slow but continuous process (continuous decompression). Those proceedings are thoroughly observed and monitored, to safely eliminate absorbed inert gasses from the body tissues. It is a deliberate process of acclimatization to protect the body from the changes that implicates going from one state of barometric pressure to another.

Interestingly similar, kink lifestyles implement a stage of aftercare that follows a session, to deal with the physical or emotional exhaustion caused by the intensity of the experience. The aftermath, or “drop”, can involve feelings of “sadness, remorse or guilt, physical shaking or chills, crying, and simple but profound exhaustion”.

Aftercare is an integral part of a kink related experience, and it’s designed to safely go back from a scene trough “physical touch, affirmation, and other forms of care to comfort the taxing acts that can be found in this non-normative play (Shahbaz & Chirinos, 2017; Thomas, 2017) as quoted by Fuentes, Sage B., “Caring about Aftercare: Thesis Presentation of Initial Findings” (2019). University Honors Theses. Paper 818. https://doi.org/10.15760/honors.837

How does VR aftercare look like?

Similarly to diving decompression, aftercare is a practice designed to protect body and mind in moving from one space to another. Both have in common the care placed in how to transition back from an immersive experience to the mundane life (for a lack of a better term).

Digital immersive experiences could extrapolate some of those lessons, as the attention is mosly placed in entering, rather than exiting, XR enviroments.

XR narratives (particularly as a sales pitch for VR) tend to focus on how immersive they can be, that is, they are centered on how we enter an experience, but there is much less consideration on how we emerge from it.

Which steps do we need to take to safely go back from a deeply immersive VR experience? How do we re-enter our physical body and space after experiencing virtual embodiment? In the long term, can you separate the effects in our cognition, when your body and mind are tricked into feeling something as real?

Essentially, what would those rituals of VR aftercare look like?

Magic circles and the “reality gradient”

Inspired by the works of Huizinga, gaming scholars (Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman expand Huizinga’s ideas from Homo Ludens in Rules of Play: Fundamentals of Game Design) have coined the term “magic circle” as a metaphor of separation between “reality” and game space. The “magic circle” is not necessarily a physical space but a mindset, one that implies suspension of disbelief and the acceptance of artificial rules.

The magic circle has been used as a cultural construct to articulate “the spatial, temporal and psychological boundary between games and the real world”, and as stated by scholar Gordon Calleja , it might be misrepresenting what is really happening, particularly in the psychological separation.

Even if we know that it is a game, the impact in our cognition is not just an on-an-off switch that disengages the minute we formally “step out” of playspace. The effects of a game might well extend beyond the boundaries of the game space, “informing the everyday experience of the player” (Castronova 2005, as quoted by Calleja).

Because of its digital nature and technological mediation, XR experiences are more akin to videogames than to other forms of play.

There is a robust body of research on the harms linked to videogames, most notably on violence, addiction and considering a gaming disorder. Complementary, researchers have documented also different benefits of playing videogames in “four main domains: cognitive (e.g., attention), motivational (e.g., resilience in the face of failure), emotional (e.g., mood management), and social (e.g., prosocial behavior)” (The Benefits of Playing Video Games, Isabela Granic, Adam Lobel, and Rutger C. M. E. Engels Radboud University Nijmegen, 2014).

Those include shorter visual reaction times; stronger attentional focus and improved working memory; improved peripheral visual attention; and enhanced eye-hand coordination and reflex responses, amongst others. In terms of benefits to our brain, Granic argues that “Contrary to conventional beliefs that playing video games is intellectually lazy and sedating, it turns out that playing these games promotes a wide range of cognitive skills” and “..these changes in neural functioning may be one means by which the cognitive skills gained through video games generalize to contexts outside games”.

As those examples showcase, for good or bad, the effects of gaming spaces (and XR experiences, as ontologically similar to them) overflow to the whole extent of human experience. “Reality” is not detached from what happens in the “magic circle”.

You don’t simply step out of the magic circle.

In a similar manner, there is an internalized view, like a subconscious belief, that AR, MR, VR, and just R (or NR for analog reality) are separate compartments, like the in-and-out of the magic circle. In AR you are superposing layers of information on top of what your eyes are perceiving, and in VR your vision is occluded and replaced. The switch of devices might be signaling and make you cognizant of which type of experience you are having.

That might be useful as a didactic classification but in practice there is more of an overlap. When your VR headset has passthrough capabilities, allowing you to see a virtual replica of your room, is that VR or AR? Can we argue that it is similar to looking into that room through your phone camera?

The thing is that reality (R) is a spectrum, there is no exact point where AR ends and MR or VR begins. Instead of separate compartments, we can think of a “reality gradient”, a spectrum that goes from the analog tangible reality that might be perceived through our senses (smell, taste, touch, sight, and hearing) to progressive stages that involve blending these different layers.

Your smell may remain grounded in physical reality, but your auditory sense might be hearing artificial sounds that overlap with those products of the tangible world, all while your visual perception has been replaced with digitally generated ones. Arguably, even digital experiences can be “tangible” or “perceptible””, thanks to haptics and mechanical simulations in what is known as the “digitisation of touch”.

There might not be a hard limit where physical ends and digital starts, both are blending and the Rs, are a spectrum:

  • one that starts with those analogue stimuli from the tangible world that we perceive through our senses (the analog, physical or tangible reality);
  • to a stage where those physical objects and constructs blend with digital ones, being through added featured as an overlay that enhances the informational qualities of said object (augmented reality),
  • that creates a digital replica like the digital twins; adds objects that don’t have a corresponding tangible counterpart and allows interaction and manipulation (mixed reality);
  • or occludes the perception of the tangible world in one or more senses (for example replacing the analogue sights or sounds with digital visuals and audio in virtual reality).

In Reality+, philosopher David Chalmers argues that virtual reality is far more than an illusion or hallucination. Philosophically, an illusion is the misperception of a real object, while a hallucination is the perception of something non-existent. Digital reality is still reality, and “virtual objects really exist as digital objects inside a computer. When we see virtual objects, we are seeing a pattern of activity inside a computer. When I’m playing Pac-Man, Pac-Man himself is a sort of data structure. That’s the data structure I’m seeing when I play Pac-Man. We are seeing a real digital object”. The central thesis of the book is that “virtual reality is genuine reality”.

Moreover, considering the dual nature of matter in quantum mechanics we might even argue that there is no difference in terms of substance between physical and digital reality, both might exist equally and emerge from the same fundamental plane of matter. “ Physicists routinely teach that the building blocks of nature are discrete particles such as the electron or quark. That is a lie. The building blocks of our theories are not particles but fields: continuous, fluidlike objects spread throughout space. The electric and magnetic fields are familiar examples, but there are also an electron field, a quark field, a Higgs field, and several more. The objects that we call fundamental particles are not fundamental. Instead they are ripples of continuous fields.”

The argument here is that for long, something that is intangible, virtual, or digital has been somewhat seen as of lesser value or impact. We have been raised to have dual standards of appreciation concerning material and immaterial objects. That has extended to consider digital experiences less impactful or “less real”. Your internet friends are not deemed as close as those you have physically met; denouncing the theft of your virtual sword might receive a prompt dismissal from the police; or online violence might be seen as somewhat not impacting as someone shouting at you on the street (even when both are verbal in nature). The screen mediation might be seen as mitigation, but what happens when the body is back on the equation, even in virtual form? IIs an inappropriate touch emitted through a haptic glove and perceived in our haptic suit essentially different from those without the technological mediation? Do they impact differently in our cognition or might they equally raise feelings of intrusion?

This duplicity might root on the inherent scarcity of what is tangible over the possible duplication of what is digital.

Also, might refer to the value of “embodiment”, which interestingly enough is a big part of the sales pitch around VR and the metaverse: the “feeling of presence”. Tangible reality has no bilocation, and our bodies become the natural measure of scarcity, limited to the point in time and space we are inhabiting. Our cognition and attention are still tied to physicalities, and therefore, they are the natural scarce resource in a digital abundance economy.

Humans are the center of cognitive scarcity, if we are “present” there (in whatever virtual world or metaverse), we are not present “here”. Although we might eventually be able to use generative AI to artificially replicate some characteristics of our individuality in a digital twin (the way we speak, our voice, etc) it remains a fact that we can not biologically bilocate, or duplicate our attention. Something to carefully consider, thinking how internet business models have been subverted to surveillance capitalism.

What happens in VR, doesn’t stay in VR

In some ways, an XR experience can be thought of as stepping into a magic circle, adding layers of artificial perception that can alter our sense of embodiment and interaction with our surroundings. This is particularly intense in VR, where a virtual representation of our body might mismatch the signals coming from our physical one. Raising your physical leg is not reflected in your virtual one, and vice versa.

When entering a VR experience, some users might feel different degrees of nausea in what has been dubbed “cybersickness”, a case of motion sickness involving digital screens rather than actual physical movement. That is particularly prevalent in VR, because even when your body is static, VR tricks your brain to think that you are moving.

These changes in perception, nausea and feelings of disorientation can often also be related to the interpupillary distance (IPD)settings. Disappointed but not surprised, studies show that cybersickness affects women more prominently, caused by inproper fittings of IPD.

“Interpupillary distance (IPD) non-fit was found to be the primary driver of gender differences in cybersickness, with motion sickness susceptibility identified as a secondary driver. Females whose IPD could not be properly fit to the VR headset and had a high motion sickness history suffered the most cybersickness and did not fully recover within 1 h post exposure. (…) Taken together, the results suggest that gender differences in cybersickness may be largely contingent on whether or not the VR display can be fit to the IPD of the user; with a substantially greater proportion of females unable to achieve a good fit. VR displays may need to be redesigned to have a wider IPD adjustable range in order to reduce cybersickness rates, especially among females.”

That’s right, women get sicker because VR headsets are not designed to properly fit their IPD. Let that sink in, thinking about the future of the workplace in VR…

Also, researchers have found that “Vestibular afferents provide a frame of reference (linear and angular head acceleration) within which spatial information from other senses is interpreted” and that there is “evidence that symptoms of depersonalization/derealization associated with vestibular dysfunction are a consequence of a sensory mismatch between disordered vestibular input and other sensory signals of orientation”. This is not only relevant to the moment of being immersed in VR, but for the aftermath, once the headset is out.

While in VR, our body is challenged to enter a different representation of our own self, an “embodiment” that might differ in morphology, size, gender, and even species. Embodiment can literally place you not just to walk in other people’s shoes, but to actually be on another living being’s skin. (imagine how this can transform our empathy for animals).

Konstantina Kilteni and Raphaela Groten tell us that“One of the central questions in cognitive science is how we experience ourselves inside a body that interacts continuously with the environment. We experience our self as being inside a body and more specifically a body that feels ‘‘ours,’’ which moves according to our intentions, obeying our will. In everyday life, these sensations are normally coupled together, perceived as emerging from only one body, the biological one, giving coherence to our self and our body representation.” They define the “sense of Embodiment” as encompassing three subcomponents: the sense of self-location, the sense of agency, and the sense of body ownership.

When exiting from VR, there are lingering sensations of disorientation, detachment, atemporality, depersonalization, or an an eerie sensation of loss, what Tobias van Schneider calls “post VR sadness”.

Studies have linked an “increase in dissociative experience (depersonalization and derealization), including a lessened sense of presence in objective reality as the result of exposure to VR”.

There is a correlation between the level of immersion and presence, that has lead to conclusions that “Virtual Reality induces dissociation, and lowers the sense of presence in objective reality”. “…The feeling of immersion, whether physical or psychological in nature, allows the user to either feel or believe that he or she has left the real world and is now interacting with a virtual environment. (…) In fact, a higher degree of immersion or presence in a virtual environment would naturally imply a greater level of detachment from external reality…”

Mentioning detachment, depersonalization and VR together in the same sentence should be a major red flag, particularly, considering the current state of internet and politics. With rampant misinformation, polarization and people believing the most egregious conspiracy theories, there is yet another component to add to the post-VR- effects combo: what I call “techno-solipsism”.
Techno-solipsism implies this mistrust of things that are outside the mind of the receiver of the information, made possible by technology that creates means to validate or reinforce its own bias. Like VR providing the technical platform to create artificial scenarios that make it possible to experience (and subsequently, internalize cognitively as empirical objective facts) any sort of fantastical alternative reality. AKA, welcome to the metaverse of flat earth.

VR Aftercare rituals: possible solutions

The post VR experience should be treated with as much care as the one to put you into it. Much like “guardian barriers” are indirectly mandated by the looming threat of liability, there should be more consideration in providing guidance, information and concrete good practices to deal with the aftermath of the experience, both while transitioning back and the and the immediate following moments, to include the long term consequences.

Re -embodiment is a big issue, and much like consumerism leaves us to deal with the aftermath of recycling as an individual responsibility instead as something that corporations should spend their money into, we are left in post-VR to our own devices (pun not intended).

Other disciplines are better equipped to think on how to design the VR decompression and aftercare package.

  • Could it be an app that gradually reintroduces you to the tangible reality?
  • Could that be a meditation-like narrative reminding you that what you have seen is an artificial created reality?
  • Could it be movements and guided exercises designed to combat the nausea?

Speaking within my own expertise, what I can see from a regulatory standpoint is that we can easily think of consumer frameworks stepping into and demanding concrete steps and solutions. For example making those features mandatory (like when you turn on the device and the guardian feature pops in de facto), and enforcing them (for example, not allowing your account to reconnect to VR if you had skipped it last time).

The effects of post VR should be seen holistically comprising both the process of coming back, the immediate moments afterwards and the long term consequences. Also, future research should take into scope not only the individual, but network effects that could collectively affect society.

Is not the intention with this piece to raise a VR panic, far from it, but to proactively identify and seek solutions for a trustworthy and safe VR experience, before, between and after.

These problems require interdisciplinary solutions, so now I would love to hear from you, how do you envision a VR aftercare?

Thanks for reading! This is a work in progress and comments and ideas are more than welcomed!

Also, you can support my work by subscribing to “This week in the ➡️ #Metaverse” , a weekly roundup of what’s happening in the digital land(scape). Metaverse ethics, governance and interesting trends from crypto, gaming and regulation. Thanks!!!

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Micaela Mantegna

Abogamer. Video Games, Metaverse & AI ethics. Author of the book "ARTficial: creativity, AI and copyright" @TED Fellow. @BKCHarvard Affiliate.