Zen Zone, the newest addition of VR relaxation apps, releases today on the Gear VR store. We had a chance to strap into the game pre-release, and welcomed the opportunity to step back from the hectic schedule of games journalism for a few minutes.
Zen Zone comes from Unello Design, an Austin based studio known for several relaxation-focused experiences including Eden River, Eden River HD for Oculus Rift DK2, and Eden River for Google Cardboard.
Zen Zone expands on the eponymous Google Cardboard version of the app with 3 different experiences; a guided relaxation in a nature setting, a deep breathing exercise where you visualize your breath, and a meditative Zen garden where you can arrange rocks and rake sand—the later of the two experiences being exclusive to the new Gear VR version.
I used to meditate quite often actually—the sort of “sit quietly and breathe” type of meditation that doesn’t rely upon music or audio tapes for inspiration—but have stopped since moving into a noisier apartment years ago. Enlightenment firmly on hold, I wondered if a VR app like Zen Zone might help me get back into the practice.
I headed first for the ‘guided full body relaxation experience’, the same from the Google Cardboard app I found out. A soft feminine voice introduces me to the point of the exercise—and surprisingly isn’t condescending in the least—welcoming me inside of a closed-off outcropping of rocks surrounding a small koi pond. She guides me to concentrate on imagining a warm glow slowly spreading through my body. My surroundings eventually fade to a starry night sky, illuminated by a psychedelic man made of particles as a visual aid. After about 5 minutes, she tells me “you can stay as long as you like.” Thanks, lady. I will.
I next picked the Zen garden, and was presented with a tiny floating model with three options: Rake, stone, and teleport.
I shifted back and forth between the three options, lifting up rocks to find the right placement, going back to the gaze-controlled rake to smooth out a disharmonious patch near the corner, and teleporting to the asian-style gazebo to admire my work up close.
The quiet, contemplative act almost made me forget about the deadline for this article for about 5 minutes as I meticulously groomed the virtual sand. I did have some trouble controlling the finer movements of the rake since it was controlled by a gaze-based reticle, and can’t understand how to click off of it without dragging it straight across the garden over my designs. There is also no reset button, or any other way to smooth out tracks of the sand garden.
Last was the guided breath meditation that was “designed to help you become relaxed, mindful, and more aware of your breath.” A swirling, undulating chrysanthemum invokes Terence McKenna-level DMT trip reports as another relaxing feminine voice tells me about the experience to come.
She tells me to take a deep breath in through my nose for 4 seconds, and to my surprise a beautiful icy-blue particle animation flows into my nose in sync as I draw in a long breath. On her command, I breath out a whispy white smoke for another 4 seconds that fades into space. This goes on for a longer and longer duration of 5 then 6 seconds of breathing in and out, all the while I’m focusing on the coldness of the air in my nostrils, and the heat as it expels through my mouth.
By this time I’m tingling all over, feeling a genuine calmness come over me.
All of these interactions run smoothly, unsurprising considering how low resource they are for the phone to run. But it wasn’t necessarily the visualizations themselves that do the heavy lifting in Zen Zone. They really only act as simple aids (besides the actual Zen garden, which is meant to be functional) and don’t detract from the act of relating directly with your real world body.
That said, Zen Zone (through no fault of its own) probably isn’t meant for long periods of time, simply because it forces you to focus on the physical sensations of your body. As Gear VR owners know, there’s always a certain point when you succumb to the weighty pressure of the headset your face, so having that hyper awareness may lead you to diminishing returns.
Zen Zone can be downloaded today on the Gear VR Oculus Store for $4.99.