Virtual Reality Meditation: Wonder, Avatars, and Psychedelic Designs | Technology

Virtual Reality Meditation: Wonder, Avatars, and Psychedelic Designs | Technology
Virtual Reality Meditation: Wonder, Avatars, and Psychedelic Designs 

Avatars, Wonder, and Psychedelic Designs: Virtual Reality Meditation

In January, I sat on a mountain, savoring the view.  I could listen to soft music, and the crystals moved in and out of my mouth with each inhalation and exhalation.  Several feet away, a rock projected a beam of light skyward, and rocks in the distance produced the same beams.  This indicated that there were other people on the mountain, which gave me a sense of connection, a rarity during the coronavirus pandemic.

I was using TRIPP, a virtual reality meditation app that encourages users to focus on their breath while viewing engaging images.  During the pandemic and mental health crisis, VR meditation apps have surged in number, which partly explains why video games have shrunk from 72 percent to 64 percent of the total VR pie, according to Polaris Market Research.

The rise in virtual reality meditation is paralleled by a flood of smartphone apps for mental health, numbering around 20,000.  Virtual reality is more immersive than smartphones, and according to some, it can enable feelings of wonder, relaxation, mindfulness, and connection with other meditators — or their avatars, at least.

I’ve tried six of these relatively inexpensive VR apps (all are compatible with the popular $300 Meta Quest 2 headset) and talked to entrepreneurs and researchers to find out how they compare to regular meditation and whether I should include VR in my fitness routine. Mental Wellness.

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Awe Inspiring

With its surreal stimuli, TRIPP aims to arouse feelings of wonder, defined as the emotional response to something so vast that it changes one’s view of the world.  Some research suggests that experiencing awe can improve well-being.  In a recent study, 44 percent of VR users got goosebumps, a physiological sign of awe.

TRIPP’s otherworldly realms go beyond simply reproducing tropical beaches.  “We focus on stimulating, not simulating,” said Nanea Reeves, executive director of TRIPP.  Each of TRIPP’s “quiet” sessions, like my mountaintop meditation, concludes with a few minutes floating in fictional galaxies bathed in warm hues.  Up there, users can experience the Overall Effect, feelings of awe and awe felt when looking down from the cosmos that have been reported by astronauts.

Another option: journeys through wavy, hyper-colored artworks, beautifully rendered works of geometry and psychedelia.  These amazing “trips” seem comparable to the use of hallucinogenic drugs, which may have benefits, but Reeves distinguished TRIPP from drug experiences.  “TRIPP comes to you” through the VR headset, “and [the drug trip] comes from you.”  TRIPP makes no therapeutic claims, although it is being used to ease patients into psychedelic-assisted therapy, which overwhelms some people at first.

Research suggests that meditation may increase openness to drug-induced transcendent experiences, and meditation may similarly increase openness to virtual reality, said Jacob Aday, a psychologist who studies psychedelics and virtual reality at the University of California, San Francisco.  A single VR meditation probably won’t transform the way you think, “but with repeated use, the benefits could be powerful,” Aday said.  He stressed that more studies are needed.

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Promote Relaxation

Many VR meditation apps are more about relaxation than awe.  “Some apps are like, how can I blow your mind?” said Josh Farkas, CEO of Cubicle Ninjas, which creates the popular Guided Meditation VR app, which offers virtual beaches, waterfalls and other relaxing scenery.  “Our app is like, how can we make you feel like you’re getting a big hug?”

A recent review found that VR meditation could promote relaxation;  reduced stress in people isolated during pandemic lockdowns, first-year medical students, university students before big exams, British office workers, and compared to audio and video meditations in 2D.

But mindfulness meditation, in which people practice being present in the moment, involves two stages, said Zindel Segal, a clinical psychologist at the University of Toronto who researches mindfulness-based interventions.  Virtual reality is a “powerful technology” to achieve the first stage: putting your mind at ease, she said.  But it interferes with the second stage, “investigating what appears in your mind with curiosity and kindness with the aim of getting to know your mind itself.”

That’s because “VR is like putting a curtain between you and your ability to see how your mind moves,” he explained.  The breath crystals in TRIPP, for example, are forming “two degrees of separation from what your breath is actually doing,” Segal said.

He is also concerned about the practicality of VR meditation.  If someone gets in line at the bank, “you’re not going to have crystals or high-resolution graphics,” he said.  “What you have is your breath.”

But Judith Amores, a Harvard research fellow and VR designer, thinks meditating in busy VR realms prepares you for this.  “Virtual reality trains you to be mindful of the moment despite distractions,” she said.  And as companies design lighter and more portable devices, more people can use VR headsets while waiting in line and elsewhere.

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Serving as a gateway to meditation

Farkas believes that the pleasant sensory stimuli of his app could also encourage many otherwise unthinking people to try it.

Amores was one of those people;  she was inspired to use and design VR meditation after striving to meditate regularly.  “I felt more productive when I meditated, but actually doing it was hard,” she said.  “I thought, how can we make this experience more engaging for novice users?” 

Another hook for newcomers is gamification.  With the Maloka app, your avatar, or “Spirit”, evolves and looks stronger the more you meditate.

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Offering a way to connect with others

A handful of virtual reality apps allow group meditations.  While many Westerners see meditation as a solitary endeavor, the Buddha taught that meditation should be anchored in the community, said Jeremy Nickel, who started EvolVR, a social platform used for virtual reality meditation that TRIPP recently acquired.  “Group meditations get you out of your head,” he said.  “They make it easier to get back into your own practice.”

I had never meditated in a group and it made me nervous to do it in virtual reality;  this excitement only increased when, upon entering my first session, I immediately found myself invading another avatar’s personal space.  We finally disentangled ourselves and headed to opposite edges of a cliff overlooking a pixelated beach for the shoot.

Another group meditation occurred inside a virtual cave.  There, I accepted that I would occasionally meet other avatars and managed to focus on my breathing and realized that the instructor was giving me very helpful guidance.  I can see why Segal, the Toronto psychologist, hopes that virtual reality can increase access to qualified mindfulness teachers.

Meditation alone and without VR is still my daily choice, but VR is a major change.  On days when I lack the willpower to sit down and close my eyes, the novelty of meditating in space or the depths of the ocean catches me.

“Virtual reality is just another tool for mental health,” Farkas said.  “It can be scary for some.  For others, it’s the incentive to put some self-care on the calendar, to get excited about sitting on a virtual beach and breathing.”

Source: The Washington Post, Direct News 99 

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