Owen Harris and Niki Smit’s Deep VR experience requires some set-up, beyond just strapping on a virtual reality headset. Participants also wear a device around their diaphragm that tracks their breathing; this device serves as the “controller,” because only the use of deep breathing techniques will allow them to progress forward in Deep.
Character progression isn’t really the point, though–the point is to relax and master breathing techniques. As you perfect the steadiness of your breath, you’ll get “rewarded” by floating onwards through the virtual space. As the trailer above shows, you’ll glide across a seafloor, past coral reefs and silent swarms of fish, all while a soothing soundtrack plays in the background. The game promises a “meditative” experience, and if the trailer is any indication, it does look relaxing.
Harris and Smit’s game also claims to “relieve stress, anxiety and mild depression” through the use of the breathing techniques that it teaches. I can think of a few reasons why this wouldn’t necessarily work for everyone; some people have a fear of the ocean, so playing this game would never feel relaxing for them (at best, it would be more of an exposure exercise).
Also, depending on the person’s own medical situation, deep breathing might not necessarily help them. Different types of breathing exercises tend to be recommended based on the patient’s own diagnoses, whether it’s asthma, fibromyalgia, anxiety, and so on. This game seems to focus on anxiety, but even in that case, deep breathing might not necessarily be effective. For example, if you’re in the midst of a panic attack, researchers recommend breathing slowly but not deeply.
Although Harris and Smit didn’t work with a behavioral researcher during the initial development of the game, they are working with one now. Isabela Granic, a professor of Behavioural Studies at Radboud University, has received a grant to test the game on participants aged 8 to 20. Engadget reports that Granic’s findings will influence future updates and improvements to the game. Her research will also attempt to determine whether Deep can better help young people with anxiety in comparison to other relaxation methods.
I tend to be skeptical about any technology that claims to have a mental health benefit, but hearing that Harris and Smit will now work with a researcher does improve my outlook on the project. As far as VR innovations go, this sounds like one I might enjoy. It would be interesting to see medical professionals in other fields testing Deep and comparing it to the breathing techniques they recommend to patients with various health needs, and to see if any of those recommendations could be translated into the current format of the game.