Looking for a distraction while you’re at home? Here are 40 FREE and family-friendly, inspirational, and stress-relieving virtual reality applications.
by Guest Author Eiran Shalev, CTO, NewPathVR
When Lisa Padilla first approached me with her vision for NewPathVR, I was immediately inspired by what we could achieve. Imagine the possibilities to not only unlock the hidden power of the brain but to empower our users to look inside themselves and find a way to improve. To feel better. Gain the strength to refine, and then to share that with others. While VR may be many things, to the folks at NewPath, it is the best tool to reprogram the brain for success. We huddled around and researched hundreds of papers where studies demonstrated how positive reinforcement, perception, and sensory filters can influence our behavior, as well as our memories.
Research and Design Phase
We knew we needed a prototype to prove VR as the right medium for spiritual growth, but what platform could serve us best?. Was this going to be a seated experience? How much interaction should it have? And what to build? For instance, did you know that if you perceive yourself as taller in VR, it actually makes you feel more confident during and after you remove your head-mounted display (HMD)? As it turns out, this is very true. Our discussions turned towards identity, and how to connect our users with their VR self. In gaming, this is called your “player self”. You have three “selves” actually. The first self, the real you, is what you do outside of games or VR experiences – ie your life: work, job, family, etc. The second self is the you that plays the game using peripherals, and experiences the content through the point of view of one or several characters in the game. You become a “player self” and share characteristics with the “game self”, but you are not the character. The third self, the “game self”, is the content’s avatar that represents you, and has a role to play in the content’s story or scenarios that your avatar experiences. By witnessing the story, and in some cases, by making choices for your avatar “game self”, your “player self” gets to experience those same emotions, and thus, share those same experiences. The cool thing about VR is that the player and the game self boundaries become blurred, such that you feel as if you are literally inside the content, and you feel much closer emotionally to the experience then you would be if you were observing the content through a monitor or TV screen. Keep in mind that taking an experience designed for a flat screen does not merit porting it to VR. All content in VR should be unique and specifically designed to transform and empower the user.
When building a VR experience, game mechanics that are based on challenge-reward systems create much more value for the user if they incorporate your senses. Adding a 360 visual experience may not be enough to trigger personal, real-world change. Adding 360 audio to that experience brings us closer, but is still not enough. By adding the ability to use your body, such as walking around and touching virtual objects, to influence the content, our team realized that we could create a world where consequences could have just as much impact on the “player self” as incentives. What’s more, if we incorporate at least 3 senses, this combination activates the memory centers or the brain. With the right experience, a player may create an association between something he/she experiences in VR, and a similar experience in his/her real life.
So, we knew we had to make a room-scale experience, and we knew we wanted it to leverage game mechanics that could change a player’s mood. The obvious choice for platform was the HTC Vive. But what about the content? I volunteered that for a prototype, we should keep things simple and demonstrate that we could achieve a basic goal. We wanted to transform a user’s mood from a negative or an indifferent position into a positive one. However, going through a sequential experience in VR, will usually not improve your life on exposure alone. In the real-world (or what we perceive to be our reality), we can usually learn any skill and master it, by practicing it over and over again. In our VR prototype, we needed to do the same. We decided that if we could create content that would teach our players some moral or zen-like lesson. A takeaway. But then also provided an opportunity to apply it, then we could create real personal growth.
Our “Self-Compassion Buddy” vision was born. In our prototype, we essentially introduced our users to their avatar self by literally creating a virtual mirror. The system tracked each of the user’s arms and mimicked his/her movement through the avatar that was reflected in the mirror. Our research showed that in order to strengthen the bond between the player-self and the avatar game-self, our users would need to interact with their mirrored reflection for approximately 70 seconds. This seems like a long time for a prototype, but in a future, commercial version of our product, the interaction could involve a game mechanic with a reward incentive. Next, we focused on the story ingredient. We did not require an elaborate story to demonstrate our vision; only a simple scene based on some narrative context. I believe that in order to create positive change or at least to invoke positive feelings, you need to have contrast, and that means placing the user into a negative situation – for a very short time of course. Then, follow it up with a positive environment filled with good energy. By placing the user into a slightly distressed state, and then moving him/her into a comfort zone, you can generate a sensation of emotional gratification. Games also apply a similar approach when they create a difficult challenge, in which a player must learn a new skill to overcome it. Once the skill is learned, the obstacle is easily navigated, and the player moves on to claim his/her reward. But more importantly, in your own life, when you undergo challenging times, and not only survive them, but learn to be stronger as a result of them, you then undergo positive change within yourself. Through overcoming these challenges, you may either improve your level of independence and self-sufficiency, or you may grow more carefree by successfully navigating stress and becoming familiar with it.
The Prototype Phase
We applied this to our “self-compassion” prototype. Imagine being immersed in a dirty, poorly-lit, virtual environment that exhumed negativity. You find yourself staring at your reflection in a mirror. You move, it moves. After a lengthy exposure to your reflected avatar, your avatar aka “buddy”, starts moving independently of you. It steps out of the mirror. Charges at you, invading your personal space. The result. You start feeling threatened. Your “inner bully” points his red finger at you and verbally abuses you, calling you “a loser…and a failure in life”. After a few moments of this, your brain switches to panic mode – a sort of fight-or-flight response. We kept the user in this state for about 7-10 seconds before interrupting the experience with another friendlier avatar. Any longer than that and we would have risked spoiling the whole experience and alienating our user.
The friendlier avatar, a nurturing female guide appears and rushes to your rescue. Freezing the bully in action, she explains to you that the bully is you. Recap: by belittling yourself, you lose confidence in yourself. The female guide then offers words of encouragement to rebuild your confidence. Her words manifest in a new scene in which soap bubbles shower from the sky. Some of the bubbles contain cute gifts such as adorable stuffed animals and pets. We introduced a bit of the fun factor in this scene. When the user pops one of these soap bubbles containing a gift, the female avatar aka your “guide” offers words of encouragement with a positive message, ie: “Lots of people care about you.” Each time you pop a bubble, the gift item inside goes into your collection, and new positive words materialize. In the next scene, you have an opportunity to apply these gifts and redeem yourself. We call this the “pay-it-forward phase.” You observe three couples, standing at surrounding points around you. These couples each reveal a virtual buddy figure matched with his respective inner-bully avatar. Similar to your initial case, the bully verbally terrorizes his victim. This continues in an endless cycle, until you interrupt the buddy, and hand out gifts from your previous scene’s collection. Each time your gifts are received, the words that were initially associated with the gift, retrigger audio playback again. The buddy’s inner-bully vanishes and the buddy then begins playing the ukulele. When all three avatar buddies receive their gifts and play the ukulele, a well-known song begins playing, lifting the mood even more and embracing a sense of relief and closure. The three playing buddies merge into one buddy enclosed behind a giant mirror. And you are once again faced with your own buddy reflection. The simulation ends when the environment cross-fades into a sunny sky, and you find yourself standing on Cloud Nine. Literally.
We quickly discovered that when a user goes through this VR experience, they feel better coming out, then going in. Our research also suggests that if we had ended simulation after the initial soap bubbles were popped, gifts received, and words of encouragement heard, then the effect would have been short-lived. By adding the “pay it forward” scene, where the user returns the favor and gives a gift to his surrounding buddies, we essentially teach our users to apply their acquired skills and pay them forward. To share. Therefore, our users resolve to help themselves, feeling a sense of contribution and meaningful value. Generosity in VR impacts our users in the real world and has longer lasting effects on their mood. It builds confidence and self-love.
Our biggest challenge in building this first prototype was testing it. I relied on using Unity as our main game engine development tool. Unity not only has established partnerships all over the world, and is compatible with 27 target platforms, but it is also free to use for development. Due to our limited resources and limited access to the HTC Vive, I ended up building our prototype using game object placeholders to represent both the HMD and the two game controllers. I then parented OpenVR’s game controller objects under these placeholders. When I repositioned the placeholder game objects in Unity’s simulator, I was able to estimate fairly accurately how the HTC Vive’s game controllers’ movement would impact the VR environment around them. On a weekly basis, under limited time and limited test access to the shared hardware, I methodically validated and tested our experience on the Vive hardware, tweaking and improving our prototype step by step. Unity is not quite WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) when it comes to the built-in development simulator. That’s why end-to-end testing is so important, especially in VR. I set up a mode that would allow me to switch between my mocked game objects and the hardware game objects in the scene project. Doing so, allowed me to execute a series of tests on our shared hardware device while continuing development in our mocked Unity environment.
Our second challenge was getting our 3D buddy avatar to move correctly in our initial mirror reflection scene, used to build an identity association with your inner buddy. I solved this by building a mimic-engine that tracked the delta positions of the mocked, game-controller-object placeholders. The engine then inverted these vectors and applied the new deltas to a basic, rigged stickman model. I added constraints on the limbs of the stickman and locked the lower limbs so that only the upper body would be affected to move freely. And it worked. Additionally, since the Vive is a room-scale experience, the position and orientation of the stickman (aka our buddy reflection) needed to map to my HMD game object’s position, such that when I moved left or right, my reflection (facing me) would move in the opposite direction. And because the mirror image itself has borders all around, our 3D stickman was piped through a render-texture camera, that projected the image onto a 3D mirror game object as a texture. The mirror game object itself had no reflection, but projecting the stickman as a texture on top of it, gave the illusion of a mirror reflection.
No matter how you choose to implement your own VR project, remember that VR is highly immersive. Due to VR’s transformative nature, the underlying purpose of your content should support a key responsibility for contributing to social goodness, and hopefully, empower our users to live more fulfilling lives.
Eiran Shalev is an experienced technical, hands-on leader with 18 years of professional expertise overseeing top teams on mobile, social, and web technologies for products ranging from multi-player mobile & social games, to streaming video ads to interactive television and more. He comes from Disney Interactive, where he established the technical vision, and helped to scale and deliver Disney’s mobile technology platform to all game studios. Before that, he spent time at Koolbit, Kabam, and RockYou! He has built more than 50 games. He joins NewPathVR as CTO.
Originating in Buddhist philosophy, mindfulness is becoming increasingly popular in the West as the incidence of anxiety, depression, and stress-related disorders plague the undercurrent of our fast-paced industrialized way of life. Recent scientific research on mindfulness has demonstrated beneficial effects on several holistic aspects of personal health, including the mind, the body, and behavior.
Mindfulness meditation has been proven medically effective to decrease stress and improve well-being when practiced consistently. Yet many people still struggle with the concept or application of mindfulness-based therapy. A new wave of delivery is emerging which is combining this ancient practice with modern technology to bridge the gap and appeal to a modern generation of meditators. Studies show not only relaxation, but important shifts in cognition, emotion, biology, and behavior that may work synergistically to improve health. There is also emerging evidence that mindfulness training is associated with greater meaning and peace in one’s life (spirituality), as well as enhanced relationships with others (Carmody et al., 2008; Carson et al., 2004)
Imagine you are sitting peacefully on a beautiful beach. You can hear seagulls against a backdrop of pebbles clinking together with each breaking wave. You take deep belly breaths and listen to your meditation teacher as she sits beside you and guides you through the film roll of anxiety and consciousness unfolding behind your eyes. Now imagine that you take off your virtual reality headset to discover you in fact never left your own living room (and saved hundreds of dollars on a flight to a meditation retreat in India.) This is an example of one scenario that modern entrepreneurs are envisioning the marriage of mindfulness and technology to enhance the effectiveness of well-being and relaxation intervention. Virtual reality devices can be combined with health tracking technology such as Provada Health‘s iOS app; “…incorporated into (the) app (is) the ability to link health-tracking wearables, such as the Apple Watch, to quantify the effects of a meditation session on, for example, your resting heart rate. Or look at how your sleep is being affected by taking time out to meditate.”
Modern gaming technology is another avenue where it seems there is potential for mindfulness to be cultivated. Take for example one gaming app available via Play Store called ‘Pause,’ which was created through the principles of mindfulness meditation and Tai Chi. The creator Peng Cheng explains, “It started with my own severe experience of stress and depression. I gave myself 6 months, I practically didn’t do anything but I meditated and practiced Tai Chi with the goal to do nothing but staying in the here and now as much as possible.” The simple game involves a little blob which follows your finger across the screen and facilitates focused awareness by growing in size as you maintain a slow concentrated speed. “Most of our stress only exists in our head and absorbs all our attention. To break this pattern, I need to focus on what is physical and tangible and actively put my attention in the moment.”
Cultivating focused attention in the present moment is the core foundation of mindfulness practice preached hundreds of years ago, in ancient India, and today via a squiggly blob on a hand-held screen or through a high-tech headset. Proper use of technology has the capacity to transform the quality of our lives and the delivery of ancient therapies such as mindfulness which are being lost on a section of the modern generation unaccustomed or afraid of ‘spiritual mumbo jumbo.’ Many trials of research have found that people with higher levels of mindfulness – even without “formal” meditation training – report feeling less stressed, anxious and depressed, and more joyful, inspired, grateful, hopeful, content, vital, and satisfied with life (Baer et al., 2006; Brown & Ryan, 2003; Cardaciotto et al., 2008; Feldman et al., 2007; Walach et al., 2006).
Another benefit of mindfulness is the ability to recognize and accurately label emotions (Analayo, 2003). More mindful people appear to have a greater ability to control emotional reactions in the middle part of the brain (the amygdala and the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex [ACC]) by engaging the front part of the brain (the prefrontal cortex [PFC]), which is associated with attention, concentration, and emotion regulation. This means when you’re practicing mindfulness you’ll better be able to control your emotions and correct unpleasant mood states.
Believe it or not, there is increasing scientific evidence to support the therapeutic effect of mindfulness meditation training on stress-related medical conditions, including psoriasis, type 2 diabetes, fibromyalgia, rheumatoid arthritis, chronic low back pain, and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder.
Several new technologies, including brain imaging, wearable tech. and virtual reality, are being used to look at and extend the potential health benefits of mindfulness. Finally, research is beginning to prove what mindfulness practitioners have known for centuries…that greater focus, awareness, acceptance, and empathy can make for more flexible, adaptive responses to stress, which, in turn, can help free us from suffering and realize greater well-being & happiness.
2 hours. That’s a record. Not for continuous nerd talk, but for a recorded version that stretched from North Carolina, to Texas, to here in California. Listen below if you dare. Share if you care.
Thank you, Jennifer. Hope to have you on Lisacast soon!
An infographic from Trendblog.net, a cheat sheet for “Google Now” commands.
As a new user of Glass and Google Now on my Moto X (get one.), this new voice interface is really cool. My first issue was that saying “Okay Google Now” is awkward. I want to call it whatever I want, just like I wanted to call Siri whatever I wanted. But there was a problem with that. Instead of just keeping my lewd nickname between us, Siri changed every “From:” field to read “Bitch”. I just learned that you can say “Okay Jarvis, …” instead of “Google”. :)
- “Search for [chicken recipes]?”
- “Say [where is the supermarket] in [Spanish]?”
- “What is [Schrodinger’s cat]?”
- “Who invented [the internet]?”
- “What is the meaning of [life]?”
- “Who is married to [Ben Affleck]?”
- “Stock price of [Apple]”
- “Author of [Game of Thrones]”
- “How old is [Michael Jordan]?”
- “Post to Google+ [feeling great]”
Notes & Reminders
- “Remind me to [buy milk] at [5 PM]”
- “Remind me [when I get / next time I’m at] [home / work / other location] [to send an email to John]”
- “Wake me up in [5 hours]”
- “Note to self: [I parked my car in section D]”
- “Set alarm for [8 PM]”
Time & Date
- “What time is it in [Tokyo]?”
- “When is the sunset [in Chicago (optional)]”
- ”What is the time zone of [Berlin]”
- “Time at home”
- “Create a calendar event: [Dinner in New York] [Saturday at 8 PM]”
- “Call [Daniel]”
- “Send [email] to Daniel, [Subject: Meeting], [Message: Will be there in 5]”
- “Send [SMS] to Philipp mobile, don’t forget to buy milk”
- ”[Contact name]”
- “Is it going to rain [tomorrow / Monday]”
- “What’s the weather in [Boston]?”
- “How’s the weather in [Portland] on [Wednesday] going to be?”
Maps & Navigation
- “Map of [Flagstaff]”
- “Show me the nearby [restaurant] on map”
- “Navigate to [Munich] on car”
- “How far is [Berlin] from [Munich]?”
- “Directions to [address / business name / other destination]”
Conversions & Calculations
- “What is the tip for  dollars?”
- “Convert [currency / length …] to [currency / length …]”
- “How much is  times ?”
- “What is  percent of ?”
- “Square root of ”
- “….. equals”
- “How are [the New York Yankees] doing?”
- “When is the next [Los Angeles Lakers] game?”
- “Show me the [Premier League] table”
- “Did [Bayern Munich] win their last game?”
- “Flight [AA 125]?”
- “Flight status of [AA 125]”
- “Has [LH 210] landed?”
- “When will [AA 120] land / depart?”
- “Go to [Huffington Post]?”
- “Open [xda.com]”
- “Show me [android.com]”
- “Browse to [reddit.com]”
- “Listen to / play [Intro] by [The XX]?”
- “YouTube [fail compilation]?”
- “Who acted in [Ocean’s 11]?”
- “Who is the producer of [Gladiator]?”
- “When was [Alien] released?”
- “Runtime of [Avatar]”
- “Listen to TV”
- “What’s this song?”
- “Do a barrel roll”
- “What’s the loneliest number?”
- “Make me a sandwich!”
- “When am I?”
- “Okay Jarvis, …” (Instead of “Okay Google, …”)
- “Who are you?”
- “How much wood could a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood.”
- “Beam me up, Scotty!”