Therapeutic escapism via VR – Y.A.N.T.A. is the mindful virtual environment by MAAU Studio
Digital sculptor and creator of Brussels-based MAUU Studio, Manon Aubry is currently shaping Y.A.N.T.A., a VR environment to reconnect with the inner self in the current hyper-productivity era.
We should slow down from time to time. We do need to take a rest. We deserve a rest. Constantly rushing in a fast-paced world, craving, wondering, believing, thinking. But what about awareness, what about just being here and now, simply, slowly, just us, as we are. We deserve this, don’t we? You might disagree… Well, that’s probably because of the hyper-productivity era we are currently living in, fueled by digitalization and further accelerated by the Covid pandemic.
“There has never been a time when work has dominated our lives, encroached on our leisure time, and mentally affected us, as much as today”, confirms Manon Aubry, creator of the social design studio MAAU, based in Brussels, Belgium. As a sculptor and curator of digital environments for physical and mental well-being, she is seeking alternatives to traditional health care by anticipating medical treatments. Recently, she’s focusing on Y.A.N.T.A., a VR calm island investigating how the current technologies can be tools for self-care wellness instead of intense productivity.
So, press stop on your productivity engine, get ready to take a rest, and… Explore Y.A.N.T.A. (behind the scenes included) together with Manon Aubry!
Who is Manon Aubry and how did the journey for MAAU Studio begin?
Manon Aubry: “I am a sculptor of digital environments, passionate about people’s daily routine behaviors and new technologies. I can spend hours watching TikTok lives, contemplate about people talking, reading comments, singing, dancing, discussing with their audience/community; or imagining this woman’s whole life with long hair and her straight and strict jacket, passing in front of me in the street of Brussels. I am fascinated by people’s attitudes and habits, from addiction to independence. I like to observe, contemplate and highlight the invisible details of my everyday environment.
More precisely, I am coming from a working-class family from the Northeast of France and now living and working in Brussels. I started my professional education in a fine arts school in France, by assembling abandoned materials to re-create structures welcoming new narratives from people. During my exchange of one year at the KABK in the department ‘interior architecture and furniture design’, I had the chance to explore and experiment with digital tools.“
Manon Aubry: “When I went back to France to finish my master, I realized that my work was not only about me anymore but more about the others. I am an empathic person working with feelings and intuitions and I needed to bring my work closer to the ground, less fictitious and more embodied within the contemporary. That is why I decided to do a second master at the Design Academy Eindhoven to go deeper into research strategies and consideration of the way I experience my environment.
My design practice had fluctuated between sculptures, functional design, immersive installations, 3D and video animations and speculative scenarios. Today I am the creator of MAAU Studio, currently fully focused on Y.A.N.T.A.“
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MAAU is a social design studio seeking alternatives, what type of social issues do you address through your work?
Manon Aubry: “Through my work, I am addressing what I am experiencing myself. I can not talk about or create something that I did not experience. So, I think that the social issues that I address in my work are the ones that I am concerned about. I am inspired by the daily routine struggles that “everyone” can have, I mean people from around the Northern Hemisphere, like me. In other words, I am addressing social issues about a growing identity.
Currently, I am working on finding a professional social statute. Facing the current health crisis, I am questioning the relation that we have with our jobs, with efficiency and productivity. With the increase of teleworking – even when considering the increase of autonomy, confidence and productivity – the number of people suffering from depression and anxiety is rising.“
Manon Aubry: “In recent years, work has become ubiquitous, taking precedence over health and creativity. On the train, on the beach, from our bed, there is always an email to answer. Work is seeping into our homes, our relationships, our values, and even our bodies – all of which bend, flex and contort towards efficiency, production and competitiveness. The phenomenon is accentuated by the current health crisis of COVID-19 with a significant increase in teleworking. Most workers spend their days in front of screens (computer, cell phone, tablet).
The French telephone company Orange, for example, has had its employees deliver their “office” to their homes: double-screen computer, ergonomic chair, headset: no need to move to the office anymore. At lunch, headset on the head, the computer instead of bread – the Zoom meeting continues. The private and intimate space of our homes has been transformed into production space.
There has never been a time when work has dominated our lives, encroached on our leisure time, and mentally affected us, as much as today. We are psychologically and physically affected by this sustained pace of daily life that makes us machines, production tools. But more than ever, we need creativity and escape. Can the current technologies become tools for self-care wellness instead of intense productivity, in the turning point of this global health crisis?”
You recently worked on Y.A.N.T.A, a virtual reality environment to anticipate burn-out, stress and anxiety. How does it work and what are its effects?
Manon Aubry: “After a long day of work, you switch from your office room to your living room, and you put on your VR headset: You have landed at a random location on a floating island. You are the only one there. You, and your digital shadow. There are no time measurements, no specific goal, no level, and no end. You can stay for as long as you wish. Contemplate and interact with your digital shadow, a tool that enables a conversation with yourself.
Y.A.N.T.A. (standing for You Are Never Too Ambitious) works by training the brain to be detached from results, productivity, or efficiency, confronted with material nothingness and focusing on oneself. It is a virtual reality environment different from what we are used to seeing. Y.A.N.T.A. is made by a minimal landscape of dunes where details are focused on the relief of the ground. Nothing else. Vast and with peaceful colours, there is no distraction. The user is the only one there, embodying an avatar responding to its digital shadow. The user is left to him/herself. It is a moment of alterity. Another way to get to the deep feelings that we have inside, in this simple environment.
The effects of Y.A.N.T.A. are progressives throughout the uses. But I can be noticed after the first use that there is always a feeling of relaxation. This can be mental as well as physical. It helps also in terms of confidence, reinforcing the link between body and mind.”
Can you tell us a bit about your process working on Y.A.N.T.A? How did the idea emerge? And what are the major challenges you have encountered?
Manon Aubry: “My process working on Y.A.N.T.A. was like therapy for myself. I think that I have made Y.A.N.T.A. to help to structure my own life first, after facing the depression of my mum because she was forbidden to work. I became aware of the relationship that we have with work in my family: Work is more important than physical or mental wellness, not to say health.
I am addicted to working. I am using “work” as an excuse every time. ‘Oh no sorry I cannot join, I have to work…. an important meeting tomorrow’. I needed to train myself to disconnect and to understand this constant need for productivity. Not being able to sit down and meditate and I do not like doing sports or walks into nature either. What I needed was an active posture, easily accessible in the use, close to the tools from my work. I like to make the metaphor between virtual reality and dream space. For me, virtual reality was a way to easily disconnect.
The major challenge along the design process of Y.A.N.T.A. was to find the right balance for the landscape. In the beginning, I was creating lots of different areas, with a lot of distractions such as vegetations or lights animations, kind of afraid of nothingness still in the process. But at some point, I realized that I needed to focus on the reliefs of the ground, important to suggest interactions between the avatar and the digital shadow. I have removed everything and spent weeks sculpting the vast reliefs of the landscape.”
You perceive Y.A.N.T.A as an alternative to traditional health care. How do you see this project evolving? What kind of impact do you aim to realize?
Manon Aubry: “At this stage, Y.A.N.T.A. is not yet at the level of an alternative to traditional health care but it is what I aim for. I see Y.A.N.T.A. evolving towards a certified tool to anticipate symptoms of depression or burnout (when it’s possible) in order to avoid medical treatments that are strongly affecting the body and mind.
With Y.A.N.T.A. I want to impact people’s daily life towards more self-care awareness and reduce the number of people suffering from depression, shaping the use of new technology.”
Y.A.N.T.A helps manage stress and anxiety in an unconventional way, what type of feedback did you get from people who have tried it?
Manon Aubry: “Most of the people who have tried Y.A.N.T.A. (56 in total) had the same spatial and time rupture. The first reaction after taking the VR headset off is that their face is expressionless for a moment, and then opening and closing their eyes, again and again, accompanied by a deep exhale breath, like a feeling of relief. Often people need a few minutes to come back completely and be able to talk about what they feel/felt.
I like to ask how long they think they were wearing the VR headset and for most of the people, they can not tell, or were completely wrong thinking that they spend 10 mins instead of 30 minutes in real life.
I also had a really nice reaction from an old woman of 80 years who was seeing and experiencing the sea for the first time in her life. Accompanied by relief of her headache.”
What’s next for MAAU Studio?
Manon Aubry: “Well, to finish what I want to achieve with Y.A.N.T.A. first: which means, to make the avatar customizable by the user, not an easy part. And from that, I would like to collaborate with a healthcare professional and make a clinical study, to get proof of results and then make it available on the Oculus platform. And by the next a Y.A.N.T.A. 2,3,4,5,6,7,8…“
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