The Liminality-Reality Interface 🕸

How states of transition preempt true transformation; the role of VR and XR in shaping real reality.

Last week I experienced probably one of the greatest exhibits in my adult life. Titled “Liminality”, the NYC-based Musem of Future Experiences (MoFE) puts a dreamlike spin to immersive entertainment. It was almost like a 70-minute meditation, guided by sensory storytelling and supercharged sound systems.

Unfailingly, August always seems to be a month of marination and reflection for me. Attending Liminality was likely the last puzzle piece I needed before fully embracing new unknowns and fresh ambiguities. A forcing function for change. This is probably best visualized through a custom framework inspired by Geoffrey Moore’s hit classic:

Taking an evolutionary biology lens, crossing the mid-20s chasm multiplies the number of open pathways and realities available to catalyze our growth. In my case, reality expands into aspects of changing geographies (from Vancouver to New York), pivoting careers (from food innovation to education tech), and updating philosophies (from fixating on perfectionist quality to taking permissionless initiative).

Naturally, this philosophical piece is about exploring the realm of the liminal. The timing is super fitting since I’ll be leveling up from 24 to 25 in just a mere week. It’s quite an interesting milestone — both an insignificant integer yet a significant step in my life’s narrative. The retrospective & reflections will be saved for next week’s issue.

I’m especially interested in the role of technology in helping shape our realities, both in the fleeting present and in sustained perpetuity. During our exploration, we’ll also grapple with the implications of digitally-enabled reality and explore what emotions, thoughts, and spaces are enabled through these contemporary channels.

But first, more on liminal spaces…

Liminality is an anthropology concept that refers to states of transition, i.e. a great “in-between” where the regular order of reality is suspended. Liminal spaces are usually compared to rites of passage, where an individual is at the threshold between two different states of being. Throughout life, we’re constantly plunged into uncharted limbo territory. Some liminal spaces are more significant in terms of the quality of changes that occur right after. Others are just plain scarier.

One application of liminality that is near and dear to this newsletter: adolescence, the intermission between childhood and adulthood. The period where the sandbox is substituted for more established structures and stimulants. While these times often feel slippery, unfixed, and confusing, we can take comfort in knowing that core parts of ourselves — i.e. personalities, values, beliefs — typically persist through the gap. This phase yields new realities and allows new defaults to bloom.

One related question that I’ve been pondering lately: if “realities” are so fluid and continuously oscillating, how do we best cultivate comfort and confidence to navigate moments of liminal transition?

The liminality-reality interface is a mental model I hacked together to build greater clarity and insight around the unnerving, fleeting sensation. Drawing on a software engineering analogy, I view the idea of liminal space like an API for life transitions:

In this case, moving from living in tradition to transformation requires a jump through the liminal layer. Instead of acting as a messenger that connects two technology platforms, the API calls signify conversations and interactions between the ‘traditional’ you and the ‘transformed’ you to help cement the change.

This might sound borderline bonkers, but the truth is that we’re completely alone with ourselves in these liminal moments. Philosophically speaking, we are both the sole actor and the sole audience waiting for that fated curtain call.

Drawing slanted rectangles on top of each other is a quirky way of showcasing the relationship, but begs a more practical question: what other types of systems can plug into this new type of API?

With our basic understanding of liminality, we can now integrate other versions of “reality” to appreciate how each component strengthens the overall stack. The following three sections will cover trends and developments in virtual reality, extended reality, and even the most underrated source of liminality… real reality.

My thesis: by intentionally immersing ourselves in the metaverse, we unlock enhanced sensory experiences that are additive to our personal growth. However, this condition only holds true if we reach a sort of stable equilibrium with an equally important force in our actual universe: real reality. Let’s explore these domains within our three acts:

🤖 Act I - VR: The Relevance of Virtual Reality

Sharply branded on the MoFE website, VR is a conduit for enabling present-altering experiences:

“We believe the phantasmagorical nature of VR has a particular power to open our minds to new perspectives and broaden our notion of consciousness. We seek out VR works that play with perception, explore new ideas, and expand our imaginations.”

Hearing a descriptor like phantasmagorical immediately nudges the brain to prep for a virtual drug-induced journey. I applaud the creators’ intentional balancing act of completely activating your senses with intense visual theatrics in one portion and then submerging you in a soothing meditative sound bath in the next. I think the most interesting historical driver of VR’s emergence is the connection to psychedelics, circa 1999. Advancements in virtual therapeutics (“cyberdelics”) are starting to peek out through mainstream outlets, but more on this trend for another essay.

The main point is that both a VR storyline and a psychedelic trip represent analogous disruptions to the natural sensory experience. And if the environment is optimized for this armchair travel, we get sucked into the vortex of lucid states and liminal spaces.

Immersive exhibits like Liminality are not trailblazing inventions by today’s tech standards and have fallen off the mainstream media’s radar. Regardless, I think these types of experiences change the value equation for future leisure opportunities. What starts with high-fidelity enhanced entertainment could seed further discovery of consumer solutions that directly improve our quality of life. I personally daydream about VR-enabled artistic simulations, adventure quests, and wellness interventions.

Before we get too carried away with such a theoretical product roadmap, it’s important to understand how VR stacks up in the current market landscape. One approach is to map out life cycle maturity in different industries and pinpoint where VR is being deployed. But since we’re exploring the broader implications around reality and liminality, we should think through what VR helps enable instead. A study from Deloitte Digital published in 2019 helps provide the backbone research here:

Simply put, the significance of VR is around elevating the ordinary. Learning, connecting, exploring, knowing, and thinking are all fundamental actions as part of the human experience — VR serves to enhance and escalate the current reality into a version with bountiful possibilities. Historical literature sources colloquially refer to VR as “the empathy machine”, with analysts and architects fascinated about the practice of soft skills development through uniquely assembled roleplay scenarios.

However, viewing each element in isolation discounts the richness of the underlying technological artform. After all, how can we describe a full-sensory performance such as Liminality with just one of these tags? To my delight, there is one use case missing from the ranks that is arguably the most important of all: play.

The playbook of playfulness comes back in full force, as play is positioned as the masternode that guides us into full immersion. It acts as the nectar that activates our inner child or inner science fiction geek, gradually driving adoption throughout the virtual excursion. Imagine a world where you could willingly tap into a diverse array of creative, immersive, and collaborative experiences, with just a flick of a switch.

But the relative scarcity of artistic VR exhibits coupled with production cost constraints limits potential advocates looking to explore new realities. Industry analytics validate that less than 20% of Americans have tried any type of virtual reality, with enthusiasm levels stagnating. We can likely point to socio-cultural hesitance and perceptual barriers as key pain points to solve before appetite for experiential VR takes flight (let alone mass consumer clamour for “seeking the liminal”).

👽 Act II - XR: The Vision of Extended Reality

As much as I adore optimistic frontier-tech fiction from the likes of Ted Chiang’s Exhalation, our S-curve analysis suggests we might be a ways away from the ultimate sci-fi vision. But if we view VR as the first level of crafting out-of-body experiences, there must be innovation happening at other corners of this digitized maze.

Enter XR. More formally, extended reality is the umbrella term that describes the merging of virtual and physical worlds — virtual reality, augmented reality, and mixed reality are all subsets. Because this piece is not meant to be a technical primer on these topics, we will instead abstract out the central concept: our relationship to spaces.

The popular crypto publication 1729 recently resurfaced an article about spatial interfaces. They argue how preserving higher dimensionality (i.e. 3D) is essential for more simple and intuitive digital user experiences:

“Humans are spatial creatures. We experience most of life in relation to space… We sense ourselves in space in relation to all of the other objects in our environment And this is powerful knowledge that we've left out of lots of software.”

The author considers a slew of commonplace applications to build the business case for spatially-informed design: everything from floor plan Outlook calendars, circular-oriented Zoom calls, breadcrumb Chrome browsing, and VR-simulated conferences.

I think critically assessing spacial interventions in our digital solutions is interesting because we often take broken UX for granted and consider it as a feature, not a bug. As for physical spaces, it’s typically a combination of defaults, signals, affordances, and constraints that dictate our core behaviour. In some ways, liminal space is the extreme case of being stuck in-between, where the concept of “space” is completely warped and we seemingly lose access to all these heuristics.

But wait, how does space relate back to extended reality? From a virtual worldbuilding perspective, fully empathizing with spatial thinking provides technologists with the highest degree of confidence to replicate an environment where UI renderings match their real-world counterparts. In essence, “extending” reality through a digital twin equipped with knowledge on human-centered design principles.

Pushing XR all the way to the boundaries of its nascent existence, we converge to one phenomenon that has recently exploded with public market interest — from big tech CEOs (Zuck, Nadella) to Packy McCormick’s comprehensive coverage — yup, the Metaverse.

The metaverse summarizes our entire discussion so far because it effectively illustrates Zuckerberg’s pitch of an embodied internet where, instead of just viewing content, you are in it. One builder who has neatly packaged metaverse insights into a few digestible articles (market map, value chain, experiential) is Jon Radoff. I’ll let his well-labeled visualization provide the tee up:

Much of this visual references back to both our anchor exhibit and the consumer VR use cases. If executed perfectly, the virtual world should come packaged with features that mirror real reality very closely. As eloquently summarized by Radoff:

“Building on much of the technology that enabled virtual worlds in games, the metaverse will give us the ability to socialize through activities rather than simply socializing through sharing photos and news links.”

Activities, stories, creations, immersions, collaborations… all these values form the cornerstones of a collective vocabulary shareable across platforms and people (so-called “interoperability”). As someone who subscribes to the techno-optimist lens of scaling high-quality socialization and creativity online, the potential for an enduring Third Place especially appeals to me.

Of course, we can’t just ignore the inherent limitations plaguing XR evolution. Right now, I can't easily transfer my custom-generated content from one platform to another. For example, if I bought a snazzy NFT avatar from OpenSea, this wouldn’t be portable to characters that exist on a Unity or Roblox server, since assets are locked up in owned corporate systems.

The antidote is a familiar rehashed story from crypto land: a push for blockchain-powered decentralization to put safety guardrails around transactions, identities, and connections created in the Third Place environment.

How about liminality? Does the infrastructure of XR make these transitory states more or less accessible as an internet citizen getting exposed for the first time?

As it turns out, the connection to liminality may be relatively straightforward. Carla Calandra explains the role of liminal spaces as gateways for “entering the metarealm”.

Communities in the Metaverse are constructing a new world where participants are straddling physical and virtual realities. From political campaigns to real estate and entertainment, the evolving metasociety forces consumers and brands to rethink our conception of spaces and places.

🍁 Act III - RR: The Joy of Real Reality

The frame of “real reality” might sound a bit unusual and unconventional, but it offers a sobering reminder that the natural world can delight, excite, and surprise us with comparable energy to the virtual stratosphere. A crowdsourced quote from Technopedia sheds a pragmatic light on the progression of “realities”:

“The term is also part of the philosophical debates that foresee a time when human beings will be overwhelmed by and spend most of their time in virtual reality. For example, the evolution and popularity of online social networks could reduce the amount of time people physically spend together, leading to a sort of virtual friendship that, arguably, does not exist in real reality.”

To address the looming concern of the metaverse consuming our fabric of human interaction, we can look to real reality as the reprieve. Specifically, let’s link back to our favourite fleeting friend: liminality. Threads in the subreddit r/LiminalSpace predominantly feature simple photographs and captions of the elicited moods and emotions. Often, liminality boasts a sense of eeriness and even supernatural connotations, a direct consequence of their architecturally baren makeup.

What comes out of this surreal browsing exercise is a series of personal experiments that try to provoke the question and allow on-demand access to liminality. Actionable methods to synthetically engineer this feeling into daily life include:

  • Visiting empty (standard) locations: This will involve going to a typically inconspicuous place — library, mall, school, airport, construction site, etc. — but at a time where no one is around.

  • Seeking abandoned (non-standard) locations: This will involve going off the beaten track, and finding conventionally “haunted” environments to trigger the liminal mindset.

  • Wandering around unfamiliar neighbourhoods: This will involve embodying a sense of wanderlust and wonder that may lead to uncovered pathways and an induced meditative state, just through the act of walking with intention.

While definitely not as flashy as virtual experimentation or metaverse immersion, a creative outlook on relishing in the real helps ground us into specific states of consciousness. Consider it a splash of familiar flavour in the sea of digital inundation.

✨ A liminal contemplation

Dramatizing my experience at Liminality a bit, I felt I’d returned from a completely distinct dimension after taking off that VR headset and completing the final seated meditation. On a more intergalactic level, I can’t help but wonder what degree of liminality Bezos and Co. felt during their space exhibition a couple of weeks ago. Did the feeling differ throughout the various touchpoints, i.e. right before the Blue Origin rocket lifted off, as they were cradled into space, and right before the graceful landing back to Earth? Isn’t outer space the ripest setting for these special sentiments?

In any case, it’s clear that VR and XR will have an increasingly substantial role to play in bridging the openness of a decentralized web with the tenderness of a real-life presence. However, it’s also no secret that the current state of metaverse functionality struggles to replace the sense of empathy and intimacy provided by physical spaces and community gatherings.

While avatarized personalities, tokenized communities, and virtualized landscapes hold massive game-changing potential for the future of the web, these inventions are still antithetical to how physical and digital realms are currently segregrated. The containerization of real sensory experiences into code packets (games, chatrooms, simulations) still doesn’t capture the beauty in its entirety, leading to a type of real-life packet loss.

But if it’s any recourse, I think it pays in a metaverse universe to dream well and dream big.

See you next week in the liminal space between 24 and 25,