Swinburnes MHO team launches VR mindfulness experiences

Swinburne’s Mental Health Online (MHO) team has launched the place app – a series of virtual reality (VR) experiences to help people practice mindfulness. Place gives people access to immersive virtual nature that helps users focus on the present moment.

The app’s launch follows two years of testing by a team of researchers, psychologists and VR developers. They found that appropriately designed virtual environments can support mindfulness practices. The first of the team’s findings have recently been published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research with more in the pipeline.

“When most people think of mindfulness, they often picture sitting down and closing their eyes to meditate, usually focusing inward on sensations like their breathing,” says Digital Mental Health Research Fellow at MHO, Dr Liz Seabrook.

“However, we know that people can find mindfulness challenging. Distracting thoughts, feelings and interruptions from the environment are often mentioned as challenges to practice mindfulness. We wanted to design a VR experience that could support people to move their attention outward and to be involved and curious about what they are seeing, hearing and feeling,” Dr Seabrook explains.

What is it like to practice mindfulness in VR?

“The first of the place VR mindfulness experiences are set in a virtual forest that was filmed using a 360 camera. It gives users the sense that they are there next to a river; they can hear the wind and birds and see leaves moving in the wind and the movement of the water. A voiceover speaks to users to guide them,” Dr Seabrook explains.

In a recent study that has just completed, the team at MHO tested if place could effectively support users in practicing mindfulness in their day-to-day life by getting 12 participants to trial place at home for two weeks.

One participant, Sarah, says that the place app made it easier for them to focus. “I’ve practiced mindfulness before and found it tiring; it requires focus and practicing self-observation, which I found challenging. Place offers a beautiful immersive experience with the video and audio components, I liked that it focused less on my interiority and had a more outward focus.”

This was echoed by another participant, Jason, “[VR] takes you out of your head and your current environment and places you in a calming environment in the comfort of your home. I have practiced mindfulness before and got very good at it. I found it peaceful, grounding and helpful in clearing anxious thoughts. The VR experience was different because I was receiving external visual and audio cues rather than just focusing on my thoughts. The virtual environment brought about feelings of curiosity to explore the surroundings and at the end of the session, I experienced the same feelings of peace and calm”.

Another participant describes the greatest benefit of place was its accessibility, “I’ve been practicing mindfulness for many years and regard it as one of the many useful tools in my kit. With the app, I was still able to practice mindfulness when it was raining or when I didn’t have the energy to drive to the local river. The simulated environment strongly replicated the benefits I derive from other mindfulness experiences,” says Caroline.

A like-minded collaboration

The Swinburne team collaborated with human-computer interaction (HCI) experts at the University of Melbourne and the industry-leading immersive studio, PHORIA to develop place.

“Extended reality (XR) for good is one of the core values behind PHORIA’s work and we see place as a project where people can connect with natural spaces and support their mental wellbeing. Being able to partner with world leaders in digital interventions, like Swinburne opens up possibilities to do more good with the technology that we are so passionate about,” PHORIA’s XR Director, Samuel Tate explains.

“We still have more research to do to compare the offerings of VR mindfulness with conventional mindfulness practices, to understand who VR might be most useful for and in what situations and to learn about the best ways of taking what we learn in a virtual world back into the real world. Using VR for mental health and wellbeing has traditionally been something that lives in research labs, we are excited about bringing it into the home.” Dr Seabrook concludes.

Place is now freely available for registered users of the Mental Health Online website. The experiences are best accessed using a VR headset (stand alone or smartphone VR headset). They can also be accessed via computer or smartphone browser for a non-immersive experience.

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