Looking over the landscape I could see an old tree standing frozen and seemingly dead, its branches coated with icy rime. Around it, mossy grass and small rocks lay beneath a coating of snow and in the distance glistening waterfalls tumbled down the sides of whitened mountains. It looked like the wilds of Ireland in wintertime, but the view existed only in my phone. My task, using a handheld biosensor called PIP, was to bring summer to this deeply cold outdoor scene by the powers of mental relaxation.
The device – the brainchild of developer Daragh McDonnell, who started work on it in 2004 at Media Lab Europe (the ill-fated European partner of the MIT Media Lab) – connects to your phone or tablet via bluetooth and works by sensing electrical changes at the surface of the skin which indicate stress levels. This data is then passed by Bluetooth into The Loom, a mobile app that uses biofeedback to help you measure, understand and manage your stress levels.
The more you relax, the faster the landscape moves from winter to summer on your phone or tablet. In my case, this process took between five and nine minutes, but a friend managed the transformation in as little as two.
To change the scene before me, I concentrated on visualising warm air around the trunk of the tree. Slowly it started to thaw. Fresh moss appeared at its base, then stones, grass, and tiny mountain flowers. A nearby stream melted into life and flowed again. And as the mountains softened and the sky relaxed from grey to blue, the tree finally burst into bloom, displaying bright leaves and creamy petals. I had revived a frozen world using only the power of thought and in the process my heart rate slowed and I felt more calm.
Environmental psychologists know that images of nature can relax us and reduce stress. As long ago as 1971, a research project involving patients recovering from gall bladder surgery showed that those placed in a ward with a window view of some fairly ordinary trees required less pain relief and recovered faster than similar patients in a ward where the windows looked out onto brick walls. This experiment has since been repeated in offices, schools, and prisons, with similar results.
The app takes a departure from the usual terrain of digital well-being – Californian beaches and mountain ranges – favoured by an industry where style is lead by US West Coast culture. Instead the “loomscape” I experienced was made up of photographs taken in different parts of Ireland. So if you’ve visited Massey’s Wood, Glen of the Downs, Devil’s Glen and Tomie’s Wood in County Wicklow, or Connemara in the west of Ireland, you might recognise some of the slivers of their verdant panoramas which have been woven together to create this fictional game-like landscape.
PIP has also worked on other apps linked to the power of relaxation such as Relax and Race where your stress level is used to determine your speed in the race – the more you relax, the faster you go. And new loomscapes are in the works for 2015.
Both PIP and Relax and Race use games technology to promote new kinds of well-being and stress reduction. There are many apps, of course, that promote relaxation as an end in itself or as insomnia and meditation aids and training. And there is an increasing amount of evidence that some video games have a relaxing effect, but this biosensor may be the first instance of the player entering into an active feedback loop and causing changes to the game itself. It would be interesting to see how far this goes in the future.