A scene from the upcoming film 'Ghost in the Shell.'
Currently, most of the virtual reality developer brainpower is being directed toward creating amazingly immersive games (and to a lesser extent, film and non-gaming interactive experiences). But when you just want to kick back and find your chill, the options in VR are surprisingly limited.
That said, I think I've found the best of the bunch.
My parameters were simple. I wanted something you could use on a high-end VR headset (not mobile), the logic being that when I meditate I want to be in a safe space, where I don't have to think about pedestrians, airplanes or any other interruptions while trying to relax.
I also avoided apps that were gamified, requiring you to solve puzzles in order to get the full experience. Meditation is about stillness, and so the goal was to find apps that contributed to stillness while still delivering a potent VR experience. Sounds simple, but based on the limited number of quality experiences out there, it seems somewhat difficult to deliver.
Nature Treks VR
[Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, $9.99]
If you've seen Doctor Strange, you'll remember that scene in the Greenwich Village mansion when Stephen is presented with three escape windows leading to different parts of the Earth. Nature Treks VR does the same thing, except in this case you get six windows into different environments. When you enter one of those environments, you're immediately plunged into a fully realized nature setting, accented by ambient music and incredibly realistic, yet subtle wildlife and weather sound effects.
IMAGE: NATURE TREKS VR
Although you can sit still in the middle of a forest, or on a sandy beach dune, or on a snowy vista, you also have the option to teleport to different parts of the environment. All you do is direct your gaze at a cross-legged humanoid figure and that's where you're transported.
From the lighting effects, to the random dust particles, and even an occasional creature scurrying in your path (yes, there are rabbits furtively hopping in the brush and deers quietly grazing in the background), the effects are designed to truly transport you to realistic nature retreats. But despite all the attention to detail, the environments end up creating the perfect setting for a meditation session free of distractions.
IMAGE: NATURE TREKS VR
The only thing stopping this from being my favorite VR meditation app is the lack of Oculus Touch support. When using it on the Rift, you have to use the Xbox controller. At this point in the development of the Rift, VR developers would do well to assume that most dedicated VR users have the Touch as their primary input device. But if you have an Xbox controller, this is easily one of the best meditation apps you can dive into.
The Impossible Travel Agency
[Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, $4.99]
The easiest way to explain the Impossible Travel Agency is to imagine yourself on the top of one of those floating rocks in Avatar, surrounded by bioluminescent plant life and neon-colored rocks, as well as the occasional flying alien beast.
Yes, it sounds psychedelic, but it's oddly calming, especially if science fiction is what takes you to your happy place.
Although it only lasts about six minutes, the experience is so vibrant yet soothing that it earns a spot here for those who still pine for the world of James Cameron's Pandora, until the sequels start to come out in 2018.
[Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, PlayStation VR, $9.99]
Next, there’s Perfect, a VR experience that is less geared toward traditional meditation and more focused on just giving you a private, remote place to collect your thoughts (and maybe meditate, too). There are three environments: a mountain range, a tropical beach, and a snow-covered forest, each with several teleport locations. Each environment has a day and night mode, giving you six environments overall.
At every location, you have the option of just listening to the sounds of nature, or turning on a nearby radio, which has several stations playing ambient music. What makes Perfect special is that you can pick up objects in the environments. While sitting on the edge of a lake dock, I was actually able to pick up a rock and skip it across the surface of the water. Little touches like these add to the immersive reality.
This app was very well thought out, and it’s also one of the few that’s also available for the PlayStation VR headset.
House of Meditation
[Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, $6.99]
House of Meditation is my top pick for easy and effective VR meditation. There are two modes: You can have a voice give you guided meditation, helping you with breathing and slowing your heart rate, or you can opt to have no voice interaction, simply allowing the environments to carry you deeper into a meditative state, along with the background music.
IMAGE: HOUSE OF MEDITATION
You can also turn off that music and either sit in silence, or use your own music (using external headphones).
The environments are diverse and effective, taking you to a surrealist Japanese temple, a Mars colony outpost, a Tibetan room, an oceanfront beach setting, the bottom of the sea, framed by a group of dancing whales, or even one setting where you levitate above a city environment.
The app's voice prompts cover a wide range of meditation scenarios. | IMAGE: HOUSE OF MEDITATION
But my favorite environment is the Prometheus, a spaceship lounge stationed in front of what looks like a warp portal orbiting above an incredibly rendered planet.
Again, none of the graphics in these meditation apps are going to fool you into thinking you're looking at reality, but as background to your meditation efforts, House of Meditation, despite its relative simplicity, is powerful.
Meditation on the go...
If your preferred VR experience is mobile, and you have a Samsung Gear VR headset, your best bet for getting in a little meditation while traveling is an app called Guided Meditation VR [Samsung Gear VR, HTC Vive, $14.99].
As its name indicates, you have the ability to go to various environments as a voice guides you through meditation sessions. It was a little too canned and on rails for me, but if all you have is a mobile VR headset, it might be your best option.
So is VR meditation the future of centering yourself in the real world? That will probably depend on the overall adoption of the technology itself. But in terms of sheer sensory impact and facilitating a true meditative state, these early and still somewhat developmental apps go a long way toward helping you find serenity away from the constant stream of news, tweets and never-ending notifications.
Using these apps, VR is the one screen that actually lowers your blood pressure, and just lets you be at peace with technology.