Exploring mindfulness in VR
Flow was an internal project I initiated and lead at Method↗ as a Senior Product Designer prompted by the question, “how might we get more people interested in mindfulness meditation?” Our solution was Flow, an experiment in creative coding, generative art, and virtual reality for immersive breathing exercises and meditations that gently guide users to a more mindful state.
“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”
I got interested in meditation and mindfulness during a particularly stressful time in my life in 2016. I found it to be an immensely effective practice and philosophy. But when I would talk to friends about it, I would get strange looks as if “sitting around doing nothing” was a bizarre activity and profound waste of time.
Meditation seemed to have an accessibility and marketing problem: there’s a large barrier to entry, namely, being able to sit in a room alone with your thoughts. It’s not an immediately interesting or practical activity to most people and I wondered if there’s a way to use technology and compelling visuals to get them interested in trying it for themselves.
People prefer to shock themselves than do nothing.
Don't leave me alone with my thoughts
Nowadays, we enjoy any number of inexpensive and readily accessible stimuli, be they books, videos, or social media. We need never be alone, with no one to talk to and nothing to do. Wilson et al. explored the state of being alone with one's thoughts and found that it appears to be an unpleasant experience. In fact, many of the people studied, particularly the men, chose to give themselves a mild electric shock rather than be deprived of external sensory stimuli.
— Science↗ 04 Jul 2014: Vol. 345, Issue 6192, pp. 75-77
We conducted research with colleagues across Method’s studios, interviewing both those with their own consistent practice and those who had never tried it before. Of those who did not currently meditate, 64% wanted to start and another 27% were interested in trying it.
Guidance is critical
Especially among those new to meditation, a guided experience was critical to their sessions. A voice periodically chiming in with instructions or a reminder to return to the breath if they were lost in thought was key. A visual element for synchronizing one’s breathing was also considered very helpful and engaging when starting out.
Metaphor makes it “sticky”
We learned that metaphors used in other meditation apps helped make the ephemeral qualities and ambiguous directions of meditation more easily understandable. Being told to watch your thoughts “like traffic” or clouds passing by became a useful mental model for those new to meditation.
We knew we wanted to make this an experiment in virtual reality and give users something more interesting than the back of their own eyelids to look at while learning to meditate. To build Flow, we worked with the Unity game engine and Google Cardboard SDK kit to turn user's phones into an immersive experience.
The breath & mandala
In Unity, we wrote scripts to procedurally generate our two main metaphors. The first was a cloud of particles that gather at the beginning of the experience before expanding and contracting to a certain breathing cadence depending on the mode the user had selected (Alert, Calm, Even, Focus). This allowed users to easily synchronize their breathing with the desired effect rather than counting inhales and exhales.
The second element we generatively produced was the mandala. This served as a metaphor for mind wandering and getting lost in your thoughts. The cloud of particles would disperse, the mandala would bloom, and the user would be instructed to simply observe their thoughts as they flowed by and disappeared. Because it was made with a script, the effect of the mandala was visually unique every time and never repeated itself.
We wanted the interface itself to continue the depth and dimensionality of the guided meditations. The dark, enveloping environment of the meditations continued behind the UI and the navigation would seem to propel itself forward and backward through space as the user made selections of breathing mode, duration, and view mode.
It all came together in Unity — the user interface, the generative visuals, and the recorded audio meditations. The recordings below capture the process of building and testing Flow, navigating the UI, and the mandala blossoming in three-dimensional space, extending toward and beyond the user in virtual space.