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Dr. Tara O'Neil


University College Dublin




experiential futures, virtual reality, innovation, creativity, embodiment, immersion, knowledge creation

Thesis Title

Phenomenal 'Ba'
Developing creative potential through
virtual time travel in experiential worlds


Today's problems are 'wicked': defined as complex and comprised of multiple, and contradictory threads that make addressing the 'whole problem' impossible without considering the inter-relations of the parts. These problems are often so knotty that they are unable to be solved. Add exponential growth and change in the economy, population, and factors around sustainability, to further compound these issues. The tools we have been using to solve these wicked problems are not sufficient; we need better and different tools and methods to achieve more.

This thesis proposes that 'tacit knowledge' can be a powerful generator of new thinking but acknowledges that tacit knowledge cannot be accessed by simply asking questions. Cognitive biases may prevent people from fully engaging with new concepts and ideas. When intellectual or creative cognitive capacity is limited, connections are not made, and new ways of thinking and understanding are blocked.

This thesis puts forward the hypothesis that a human’s capacity for original thought and radical discovery can be increased through virtual, experiential tools. The research for the thesis and the practical project underpinning it have explored – in theory, and in practice - how engagement in virtual future experiential worlds can provide a useful tool to help people develop new creative ideas. The research project scoped, designed, developed, tested, and analysed the use of novel virtual experiential worlds for this purpose, offering several original contributions including a novel tool for future use by scholars and practitioners. The thesis poses and answers the following research questions: Can immersion in Virtual Reality (VR) scenarios activate new creative thinking? Can ba be created as a destination? Can VR immersion change a user's existing point of view? The research provides theoretical and evidence-based answers to these questions and then demonstrates the potential for solving wicked problems.

A new method of creative exploration is offered: Elastic Action. This process begins with an effort to remove bias and blockage from the thinker's mind. Accommodation is created in the brain through exposure to 'awe', as defined at length in the thesis. Through this process, existing cognitive connections are broken, so new information can be accepted, and new ways of thinking can be enabled. The embodied cognition which takes place while the participant is immersed in a virtual future scenario can be called 'Extensible Realisations': another new concept of the thesis. Participants are then receptive to data from both mind and body. The virtual experiences were designed to 'stretch' the mind and discover new knowledge. This research successfully creates ba, a place for tacit knowledge creation enabled by a new tool of exposure: VR Time Portals. Participants travelled to divergent possible futures where they explored and discovered new ideas, perspectives, and possibilities. After immersion, they were 'snapped back' to their lived reality, where they sorted and codified their new ideas.

The research design: seven residents experienced two divergent possible futures of their town in the year 2050. A change in the participants' abilities to create new ideas was experienced by all. While immersed, participants reported that they were "confronted with awe and wonder" and that they "felt their minds had been stretched" and "determined that their points of view had been altered".

The results of this research provide a set of original contributions to knowledge, including a novel experiential design process that others may use to tackle wicked problems, along with a research tool in the form of the VR Time Portals. This research is intended to contribute to knowledge in the fields of Creative Thinking and Theory, as well as to Futures Studies, and Inclusive and Sustainable Design.



Tara O'Neil's work in innovation is located at the intersection of design, strategy and foresight. Delivering creative and critical thinking that goes below the surface is found in many examples of Tara’s work. Her PhD thesis, Tara took users to the future using Virtual Reality Tome Portals so that they could overcome their existing cognitive bias and find their inner but buried creative talent. The same process is currently being used in a variety of projects at SMARTlab Niagara, where Tara is the Chief Innovation Officer. From finding innovative solutions to climate change to understanding and gaining empathy regarding the history of Canada be Tara’s time portals are bringing people opportunities to make the invisible, visible.

Before reigniting her pursuit of higher education, Tara was the Chief Creative Officer at a retail design and strategy studio in Toronto. Multidisciplinary teams created the user experience in retail globally. Teams were comprised of designers, strategists, storytellers and artists. Together these powerful teams considered and delivered customer experiences across Omnichannel formats to financial institutions, grocery, home improvement and fashion.

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