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A Breathtaking Journey is an immersive multisensory simulation that depicts the experience of hiding in the back of a truck to escape from a war-torn country.

A Breathtaking Journey is an embodied multisensory game that confronts players with the intense experience of escaping from a war-torn country in the back of a truck. The experience starts with an abstract backstory that lays out the reasons why the protagonist had no other choice than to flee. Suddenly everything turns black and the player is greeted by the soothing scent of mandarins, a gentle rocking motion, and a distant road noise.

Not much later the rocking motion swiftly intensifies and the protagonist is jolted awake to the back of a truck stacked to the brim with mandarins. From this point forward the objective is to enjoy the outside scenery through a small hole in the side of the truck and to stay quiet as soon as the truck is forced to stop for inspection.

Next to the virtual reality headset and a pair of headphones, players also wear a wireless custom mask that has two functions: disperse scent close to the nose and measure respiration.

The first function of the mask allows players to smell the virtual environment, such as the scent of mandarins right before the protagonist wakes up. The second function accurately tracks players’ respiration, and thus allows the game to determine when players inhale, exhale, and hold their breath. The latter aspect is used to check whether players actually hold their breath when prompted to do so as soon as the truck’s cargo is inspected, with multiple violations resulting in getting caught. This somewhat uncomfortable interaction contributes greatly to the unique embodied experience offered by A Breathtaking Journey.

A qualitative between-subjects (pre/post) study with 70 participants generated insight into the attitudinal influences and design factors that elicited empathic responses. Using a photo elicitation technique, the study highlights that embodiment results in an affective interpolation of the embedded narrative. In practice this means that embodiment seems to increase the number of emotional markers when recounting the embedded narrative. However, immersion caused by embodiment also seems to increase self-absorption, which is known to inhibit other-oriented empathy. As a countermeasure, the study points at the importance of reflection for other-oriented empathy, illustrated by the increase of other-oriented empathic markers when recounting parts of the experience that may be considered downtime. Please read the published papers linked at the end of this page for more study details.

A Breathtaking Journey was produced as part of the NWO Persuasive Gaming in Context project at the Eindhoven University of Technology, the Netherlands, to address both the issue at hand and to explore the empathy-arousing capacity of immersive technologies

Project Details

Developed for

  • Eindhoven University of Technology in Eindhoven, the Netherlands.
  • Amnesty International (early stages of project)

Developed with

  • Cas Ketel

Responsible for:

  • Game and narrative design.
  • Writing story script and managing voice overs.
  • Designing and developing a custom wireless mask capable of measuring expiration and the dispersion of scents.
  • Carrying out user experience studies and generating design insights.
  • Designing of the interface between game engine (Unreal Engine) and actuators/sensors.
  • Translating study insights into design requirements and opportunities.
  • Defining research requirements and hypotheses for design (explorations).
  • Publishing and presenting related studies.

Exhibited at

  • 2015 Dutch VR Days. Amsterdam, the Netherlands
  • 2015 Bright Day. Amsterdam, the Netherlands
  • 2015 Playground VR. Groningen, the Netherlands
  • 2016 De Culturele Zondag. Utrecht, the Netherlands
  • 2016 Festival deBeschaving. Utrecht, the Netherlands
  • 2016 Night of the Nerds. Eindhoven, the Netherlands.
  • 2016 Dutch Design Week. Eindhoven, the Netherlands.

Featured on

  • Dutch VR Days moeten virtual reality op de kaart zetten. (2015). NOS Journaal. NPO
  • De virtuele realiteit komt steeds dichterbij. (2015). Z Today. RTL
  • De Wereld van Virtual Reality. (2015). Radio EenVandaag. NPO
  • Brightday Report. (2015). Bright TV. RTL
  • De reis van een vluchteling in virtual reality. (2016). NOS Airtime. NPO
  • Onderzoekers ontwikkelen VR-ervaring op basis van verhalen van vluchtelingen. (2016). De Kennis van NU. NTR.

Awarded with

  • ACM CHI Play 2016 Honorable Mention (top 5%)

Evaluated in

  • Kors, M.J.L., Ferri, G., van der Spek, E.D., Ketel, C., & Schouten, B.A.M. (2021). A Breathtaking Journey. Appealing to Empathy in a Persuasive Mixed-Reality. In T. de la Hera, J. Jansz, J. Raessens, & B. Schouten (Eds.), Persuasive Gaming in Context (pp. 95-118). Amsterdam, the Netherlands: Amsterdam University Press.
  • Kors, M. J. L., van der Spek, E. D., Ferri, G., & Schouten, B. A. M. (2018). You; the Observer, Partaker or Victim. Delineating Three Perspective to Empathic Engagement through Immersive Technologies. Proceedings of the 2018 Annual Symposium on Computer-Human Interaction in Play. Melbourne, Australia. https://doi.org/10.1145/3270316.3271547
  • Kors, M. J. L., Ferri, G., van der Spek, E. D., Ketel, C., & Schouten, B. A. M. (2016). A Breathtaking Journey. On the Design of an Empathy-Arousing Mixed-Reality Game. Proceedings of the 2016 Annual Symposium on Computer-Human Interaction in Play, 91-104. Austin, TX, USA. https://doi.org/10.1145/2967934.2968110