UnwindVR Part I: How to relax in the office

Hugh Gaukroger
Sep 4, 2018 · 5 min read

This is the first part of a series about the design of UnwindVR.

Unwind VR Savannah environment

Stress in the office is common; in fact one in four people report work is the biggest source of stress in their life. Meditation and mindfulness have rightfully been promoted as a way to address this. But what happens to the many people who are intimidated, frustrated, or overwhelmed by the practice of meditation?

Unwind VR is a way to relax in the office in less than 10 minutes, with no practice required. The Google Cardboard VR experience runs on any smartphone and helps people slow down their breathing without the fear of failure that often overshadows the beginners meditation practice.

The experience transports the user out of the office into a stylised environment where they use a combination of visual and audio cues to slow their breathing. The app takes the user’s resting breath rate before the experience starts and as the session progresses the time between breaths slows.

A 2D gif helping people to calm their anxiety using visual cues that spread through social media in 2015

The origin of the concept was developed as part of a university research project which looked at reducing stress in students. My initial user research showed a significant portion of users found meditation practice stressful. During facilitated breathing meditation sessions a number of users reported a feeling of hyperventilation or anxiety when focusing on the sensation of the breath.

Background research showed that slowed rates of breathing improved HRV (heart rate variability) which is an indicator of stress or relaxation. Initial prototypes used an LED matrix and an Arduino to visualise breathing cues. Feedback indicated that a personalised breathing rate was needed — some found the initial rate too slow, some too quick, but most users reported having a positive experience (even those who initially mentioned that meditation ‘wasn’t for them’).

In my time as Virtual and Augmented Reality team lead at PwC Australia I have had the opportunity to build on this concept and test with a range of different users.

The idea of relaxing in a virtual environment probably seems foreign to most people.

For the average office worker, the idea of relaxation may be to get away from their surroundings. The very environment of the office carries the association of the activities which cause stress: presentations, deadlines, meetings.

And yet how many office workers feel like they have no time to get outside of their building or escape from the endless inner dialogue a stressed mind producers. Ever tried teaching yourself breathing meditation in an open plan office? For the laser focused this may be possible. For anyone else some assistance can make a huge difference.

For Unwind VR, the user base we were designing for was one which likely had never tried any virtual reality experience before, and almost certainly hadn’t used VR outside the context of a live demonstration from someone familiar with the technology.

There are a number of impediments to making VR consumer friendly:

  1. The hardware is unfamiliar and potentially intimidating,
  2. Many VR experiences don’t pay adequate attention to user comfort — this factor is at its worst when someone new to VR is placed in a roller coaster simulation, and
  3. People don’t have the same intuitive sense of how to interact with user interfaces in the way they do with smartphones.
Some examples of VR Hardware

With these factors in mind we created an easy to use mobile VR app with particular attention paid to user comfort. Using Google Cardboard was the only scalable way to deliver a mobile VR experience to our users. Because of the wide range of smart phones that people use, the visual style of the app had to work for different screen sizes and resolutions.

VR environments fit within three categories: photographic (usually recorded with a 360 camera), graphic realism (attempting to recreate a photorealistic scene) and stylised graphics (think Super Mario).

Left: photographic. Middle: graphic realism. Right: stylised graphics.

Beyond the practical limitations of getting on site with expensive 360 video equipment, we have had consistent user feedback that people expect VR resolution to match the HD screen based content they are used to. Users are often distracted by blurring and pixelation which is unavoidable on mobile VR headsets.

Some simple user research we conducted showed that our audience was forgiving of the screen door effect (where you can see the breaks between pixels) in the context of a stylised aesthetic. User responses also indicated that a large majority found the common types of 3D visuals hard to relate with (low poly, cartoon style, attempts at graphic photorealism).

Screen door effect on various VR headsets

With these limitations in mind, we developed the stylised Savannah environment for the second beta version of the app. We worked on a visual style which drew inspiration from illustrators like Moebius, from Japanese Ukiyo-e art, and traditional water colour landscapes. Our techniques for developing this stylised technique will be discussed in article IV of this series.

Left: Moebius illustration. Middle: Japanese Ukiyo-e. Right: Traditional Watercolor

Continue your reading with Part II:

PwC Virtual Studios

Ideas and notes from the team

Hugh Gaukroger

Written by

I'm a VR designer passionate about testing the limits of interactive technology and the mind

PwC Virtual Studios

Ideas and notes from the team

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