When virtual reality entered its first renaissance in the late 80’s and early 90’s, the movement was heavily concentrated in the San Francisco Bay area. Also heavily concentrated in the area at the time was a burgeoning psychedelic movement. Inevitably, the two communities found some common ground. From the creative processes of VRML pioneers Mark Pesce and Tony Parisi to what led Timothy Leary to call VR, “the LSD of the 90’s” – there is a long standing relationship between psychedelics and VR. In this article, we go in depth with that history, answering questions along the way – including just what is it like to try VR on LSD?
The annual celebration for cannabis is a special day. On, April 20th, copious amounts of (medical) marijuana will be consumed. The active chemical compound in weed, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), will be passed around in blunts, bongs, bowls, joints, vaporizers, and edibles throughout the day. At the same time, some of the people partaking in the holiday will be coming down from hallucinogenic trips induced from the day before, which is another lesser-known festivity. With both days in mind, we dive into the history of the infamous “Bicycle Trip” that sparked a psychedelic revolution. That moment is hypothesized to have indirectly led to the indoctrination of virtual reality concepts. We theorize why.
The story begins on April 19, 1943, when Swiss scientist Albert Hofman ingested a low dose of an unknown chemical compound that he called ‘lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD-25).’ The drug, originally derived from a grain fungus that typically grows on rye, produced powerful, mind-altering effects. Less than one hour later, the reactions started kicking in. Soon, the scientist took a legendary trip through town, which quickly became known as “Bicycle Day.”
Hofman experienced something that no human had prior to that; a radical shift in consciousness brought on by LSD. The psychoactive substance that Hofman synthesized had extraordinary potency; even in low doses. The effects had mass potential, as Hofmann originally foresaw, to be used as a powerful psychiatric tool – because of its intense and introspective nature. Surprisingly though, he couldn’t imagine anyone using it recreationally. 
Little did Hofman know what would happen next. That “Bicycle Day” experience, along with Hofman’s discovery, would go on to influence vast collections of people, including rockstars, researchers, philosophers, mathematicians, and visionaries; as well as the animators of a short film that re-created Hofman’s trip in a unique way (see below).
In the following decades, LSD jumped out of the research labs and onto the streets. A notable figure who assisted in the spread of psychedelics was Ken Kesey, author of the American novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
With jars of psychedelic compounds, Kesey organized an epic road trip with his ‘Merry Band of Pranksters’ across the United States; which bears subtle similarities to road trips happening now with VR. Kesey and his team introduced people to ideas of mind-expansion through the use of psychedelic drugs they had in hand. Today, people pass out virtual reality experiences instead.
Shortly after their wild journey, Kesey and the ‘Merry Pranksters’ started holding “Acid Tests” where people explored the inner-workings of their minds through drug-induced experimentation. At those events, a group of musicians calling themselves the ‘Warlocks’ (later known as the Grateful Dead) spawned from the metaphorical mist. As the Dead exploded onto the scene, psychedelics like LSD flew into the emerging tech circles through the entrance way of art and music; especially in San Francisco.
Around the same time, handfuls of engineers began adopting LSD as an intellectual tool. Douglas Engelbart, the inventor of the computer mouse, for example, was once given a low dose by researchers to see if those under the influence of the drug would be able to solve problems.  In addition, one of Engelbart’s close friends, Ted Nelson (the man who coined the term ‘teledildonics’), reportedly ingested substances from time to time as well; including a visit to the house of Mondo 2000, an edgy press publication that was covering virtual reality, psychedelics, and consciousness at the time.
Looking back, it seems entirely possible that empires were founded on some of the ideas that that surfaced in parallel with the use of psychedelic drugs. Steve Jobs, the co-founder of the multi-billion dollar tech giant Apple, for instance, gave a quote about LSD’s influence on his life to New York Times reporter John Markoff. The interview was for Markoff’s 2005 book What the Dormouse Said: How the Sixties Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer Industry.
Doing LSD was one of the two or three most important things I have done in my life.” – Steve Jobs
In an interview with Playboy in 1985, Jobs talked openly about where people were finding LSD. He mentions that “You could get LSD fresh made from Stanford. You could sleep on the beach at night with your girlfriend. California has a sense of experimentation and a sense of openness—openness to new possibilities.”
Furthermore, Microsoft’s co-founder Bill Gates was once questioned about the role of psychedelics during an interview also by Playboy as well. At the time, it was rumored that Gates used mind-altering substances during his youth. Although Gates never admitted to anything and said that his “errant youth ended a long time ago,” his name is synonymous with Steve Jobs while researching drug use in the tech world. Gates may not have ingested LSD, or perhaps he did. Yet, at the very least, he was around the same time when his peers, like Steve Jobs, were.
On the VR side of visual computing technologies, an early indicator that virtual reality was influenced by psychedelics can be found in an article by the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) titled “Psychedelics and the Creation of Virtual Reality.” The short, yet insightful piece from 1999 glimpsed into the creative processes developed by a virtual reality community leader named Mark Pesce, the co-creator of the Virtual Reality Markup Language (VRML).
The following segments are portions of the interview’s transcript, which dives into the role that psychedelics played for Pesce during the development of VRML.
MAPS: How have psychedelics affected your creative process?
Mark Pesce: I’m not sure that I’d be doing any of the work that I’m doing now. I don’t know. I think I’d probably be some silly software engineer working in New England, unenlightened and bored with life, without psychedelics. I can almost guarantee that. My use of psychedelics and my intellectual career essentially began synonymously somewhere in the first or second year of college. And so there was an opening up that came from the psychedelic experience, which resulted in my becoming attracted to certain types of ideas…certain types of research.
It’s not that it established the agenda, but it gave me a magnetic center — that’s what the Gurdjieffians would call it. But a sense of self that is very particular. And from that, what I had to do was just follow where that center would take me, and listen to it. And the times in my life when I’ve gotten fucked up are the times when I haven’t done that. By the time I got a little bit older, I was into what Joseph Campbell would call “following your bliss.” Well, my bliss was revealed through the psychedelic experience. It wasn’t achieved through the psychedelic experience, but it was revealed through the psychedelic experience.
Now, I won’t make any attributions to what the divine is, but if psychedelics reveal the divine, or allow you to eminentize it, to see it physically, or this sort of thing, wouldn’t it make sense for that moment to be synonymous with the moment of revealing of what your bliss is? I mean it would be sort of silly for a divine being to show itself, and to not show you what you are. That would only be a half revelation, because beholding the divine also means beholding the divine in yourself, and that’s part of what you are — what you’re doing, why you’re there.
MAPS: Do you ever use psychedelics for problem-solving tasks? Where you have a specific question in mind, and then you take psychedelics in search of an answer?
Mark: They’ve certainly been facilitators or catalysts for that. The most striking example is all the cyberspace protocols that came to me. I mean “wham,” it came to me like that, and I just saw them. I got the big picture, but the big picture said, “Okay, well you know roughly how to make it work. Now you have to go in and do the detail, right?” I spent three years doing that detail work, and out of that detail work came VMRL, and some stuff which you’ll probably still see in a couple of years. So in that case it was very direct…
I’ve done a bunch of research work on the ethics and the effects of virtual environments. And that also was catalyzed specifically in a psychedelic experience. You know, it was like “snap.” It’s a moment of clarity. Not like the same AA moment of clarity, right? But it’s a moment of clarity, you see it. Just because you see it, doesn’t mean that you’re immediately able to talk about it. I spent six months with that, and managed to sort of piece it together, and say, “Okay, well I’ve got this great tapestry up there. All right, I think I see a relationship within the elements, let me spend some time with it and get it codified into something that’s visibly solid in feel.”
MAPS: What particular compounds were you working with?
Mark: That was LSD, I think entirely. There were some mushrooms at the beginning, but I think that at that time it was entirely LSD.
In addition to Mark Pesce, another co-creator of VRML, Tony Parisi, came on record to suggest that psychedelics directly influenced the direction virtual reality would take in San Francisco during the 1990s. This bit of information was uncovered during a “Flashback” article we did where we interviewed Parisi at a virtual reality conference in Los Angeles. Parisi discussed how mind-altering substances were floating around San Francisco during one of the high points in Virtual Reality’s history.
So the VR scene was heavily centered in San Francisco. San Francisco is the psychedelic capital of this hemisphere, at least, so you can imagine there were a lot of people doing virtual reality who were also experimenting with all kinds of altered states of consciousness. Long story short, there was a lot of that going on. They weren’t taking the drugs and doing the VR; not necessarily a recommended combination.
But imagine the kind of mindset it takes to experiment with your consciousness to explore other states of mind; that kind of thinking can be incredibly useful and thinking about new businesses, startups, disruption, and how they are going to change the world.
If you have enough courage to try and change your inner consciousness, you may be the kind of person that wants to go in and change the world. These things go hand in glove. – Tony Parisi, 2015.
*Featured image originally created by artist Anastasia - source