‘I begin to feel like a god’ ... Rhik Samadder tries the Samsung Gear VR. Photograph: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian
Mindfulness technology sounds like an oxymoron. Time to discover whether putting on goggles to gaze at views usually enjoyed only by the ultra-rich can calm an overstimulated brain.
At school, I knew a boy who made himself smoke a carton of Marlboro Red in a week. He didn’t like cigarettes, but wanted to get addicted, he said. A mission statement I remember for being a huge amount of stupid to fit into so few words. His logic was that the way to feel less sickened by fags was to smoke 200 of them. Yet I am struck by a similar contradiction while testing the Guided Meditation VR app for Samsung’s virtual-reality headset, Gear VR (£119, samsung.com).
Many of us feel digitally overloaded and crave mental peace. But can the balm to our overstimulated brains lie within another screen? Isn’t mindfulness technology an oxymoron?
The app is admirably simple. It offers a gallery of 360-degree environments, in which one can sit and receive calmly voiced instructions on how to chill out. It is popular, too, already boasting more than 100,000 users. The catch is that you have to own a Samsung Galaxy phone and a Gear to try it, and that wearing VR goggles on any platform makes you look like a right crowbar.
At least the Gear is intuitive. Plugging a phone into the headset brings up a menu, from which I download the free app, using the handheld controller provided. A block of meditation options float against a peaceful background. Pick a world, any world. Shall I sit lotus in the endless dunes of the Gobi or levitate above the clouds or lie under the aurora borealis? Selecting at random, I teleport into a redwood forest, then get bored and try the Alps, then a Japanese meadow and then, er, the Costa del Sol.
I flash through space and time, from a Nordic spa lodge to the painted walls of an ancient Egyptian temple. Waves lap, grass sways, dust motes drift about. The light in the sky shimmers from darkest night to dawn, then it is bouncing off a cave wall in an underground lake. I begin to feel like a god. I am grounded only by the voice emerging from the phone speaker, telling me to focus on my breathing, note my thoughts or visualise my growing belly and the baby within. Picture a healing ball of light, it suggests. “You picture it for me,” I snap, toggling the audio to “off”.
It is not the artwork or the resolution that impresses – the scenes are almost cartoon-like and mostly static. You would never confuse them with reality. It is the sense of scale that gets you. It is visceral and, yes, incredibly calming. You can select your meditation theme, the music and the duration. There are several meditation strands – with 10 levels in each – to choose between, including pregnancy assistance, Hawaiian mantras, Zen thinking and guides to develop focus and compassion.
Inside a huge, empty atrium, I realise that only the ultra-rich usually have access to these kinds of views: undisturbed beaches and resort lounges, empty spas and unbroken horizons. For the week I tested the app, I couldn’t get past the novelty. It unbalanced the meditation. It is uncanny to feel yourself neurologically manipulated, for your body to experience itself in an epic vista, knowing it hasn’t left a small room.
It is unsettling, too. These are ghost towns: no humans visible, little movement. When I look down, there is nobody there, either. Is this peace? Disembodied, uneventful limbo? Not to bring the mood down, but that could be a description of death. One meditation, on the theme of spaciousness, urges me: “Open your eyes and notice the world around you. Feel the world around you.” Which seems a bit rich.
If one aspect of meditation is accepting our given existence, virtual reality seems to be missing the point. Still, if you are simply trying to feel calmer, these empty idylls will do the trick. Why should the rich have all the space? This app would make a useful time-out aid, especially with noise-cancelling headphones in an office. But to experience peace of mind in exchange for all of my body? I would rather take a walk in the park.