Transcendent experiences are well documented in a wide range of literatures across multiple disciplines including social science, neuroscience and pharmacology (Blythe and Buie 2021). In a major review Blythe and Buie demonstrate that facilitators for transcendent experiences can be physical (natural environments, architectural spaces, art and music), chemical (e.g. psylocibin and other psychoactive substances) and also digital (e.g. prayer and meditation apps as well as immersive virtual reality environments). This PhD will explore transcendent spaces in the emerging “metaverse” through digital ethnography and design fiction.
The term “Metaverse” makes its first appearance in a science fiction novel - “This is all a part of the moving illustration drawn by his computer according to specifications coming down the fiber-optic cable. The people are pieces of software called avatars. They are the audio-visual bodies that people use to communicate with each other in the Metaverse.” (Stephenson (1992). Since the publication of Snow Crash the term “metaverse” has been applied to immersive social experience like Fortnite, Minecraft and Roblox (Sweeney 2019). As the metaverse begins to emerge there are competing visions of how it should be developed and what it could mean. Facebook recently announced a plan to hire 10,000 people in the EU to work on their vision of a metaverse that will enable “new creative, social and economic opportunities”. Academic researchers have speculated that the metaverse may be a place to promote social good (e.g. Duan et al 2021). There is also great optimism around the uses of VR in the promotion of mental health and well-being (Blythe and Buie 2021).
This PhD will explore the historical and emerging visions of the metaverse through - the critical analysis of existing representations, primary research with online ethnography and, the development of design fiction. Design Fiction is a well established method in academia and Industrial researchers have also adopted the practice to illustrate ambitious projects like Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture (Baumer et al 2020) Critical readings examining the dominant metaphors and narratives in existing representations will be informed by online ethnographic work in the emerging metaverse. Digital ethnography is increasingly well recognised as a method for understanding new and emerging technology (e.g. Pink et al 2015). Virtual ethnographies could yield valuable insights for designing spaces for transcendence in the metaverse. For example, Fornite is now used as a venue for live events and concerts and there is a well-established link between transcendence and the experience of music (Blythe and Buie 2021). Insights gained from digital ethnographies will form the basis for new design fictions imagining what transcendent spaces might look like. Design fiction can take many formats (text, audio-visuals images, films and virtual environments) and the form for this work will depend on the candidate. For example, if the candidate is a skilled writer, then text would be appropriate but if the candidate has a strong background in Unity then the development of virtual environments would be an interesting method to explore.
The Principal Supervisor for this project is Professor Mark Blythe
Eligibility and How to Apply:
Please note eligibility requirement:
· Academic excellence of the proposed student i.e. 2:1 (or equivalent GPA from non-UK universities [preference for 1st class honours]); or a Masters (preference for Merit or above); or APEL evidence of substantial practitioner achievement.
· Appropriate IELTS score, if required.
· Applicants cannot apply for this funding if currently engaged in Doctoral study at Northumbria or elsewhere or if they have previously been awarded a PhD.
For further details of how to apply, entry requirements and the application form, see
Please note: Applications that do not include a research proposal of approximately 1,000 words (not a copy of the advert), or that do not include the advert reference (e.g. RDF22/ADSS/DES/BLYTHE) will not be considered.
Deadline for applications: 18 February 2022
Start Date: 1 October 2022
Northumbria University takes pride in, and values, the quality and diversity of our staff and students. We welcome applications from all members of the community.