How Can Virtual Reality Help Improve Interoceptive Awareness
Explore creative body awareness through VR yoga practice
Collaborators — Mert Bozfakioglu, Roly Gracias
Keywords — Awareness, mindfulness, virtual reality, environmental feedback, motion, presence, limb awareness
Medium — Oculus Quest, Tilt Brush
Why yoga and VR?
Body awareness is never an alien concept for virtual reality. Even though virtual reality has developed so much that players can feel fairly comfortable to perform tasks in virtual space such as doing sports, socializing, drawing etc., it still only partially masters the art of human body awareness. From a technical standpoint, so far the most popular VR headsets like Oculus only support head tracking and hand tracking, and full body tracking only comes to realization when you implement additional tracking devices such as Kinect or Teslasuit. With the missing sense of the rest of the body in virtual reality, it has been very difficult for normal players to just even feel their body, not to mention have a good control of it.
However, body awareness is only the first step for how human master the body in real life. According to Interoceptive Awareness Skills for Emotion Regulation: Theory and Approach of Mindful Awareness in Body-Oriented Therapy (MABT) (Price and Hooven, 2018), establishing interoceptive awareness is crucial for people to achieve an “integrated sense of self”, which includes awareness, access and appraisal. While body awareness shows whether a person is able to identity their inner body sensation, it does not mean that they are able to evaluate, control and adjust their sensation accordingly. So far virtual reality enables players’ senses by implementing real-life physical laws in VR for players to passively react to, but it hasn’t been able to induce players’ self-initiatives to actively pay attention to their sensations and control them for full engagement.
Similar to virtual reality, body awareness is also a commonly mentioned term in yoga. Both practices intend to take the practitioners out of the daily activities and single out sensing the body sensing from all the tasks to make practitioners fully immerse in it. However, in contrast with virtual reality, yoga as an exercise, a spiritual practice, goes beyond passive reactions to sensation; its goal is through practices on posture, breathing, meditation etc. to connect with the environment and with the body and thus leads to active control of it. Yoga is derived from the root yuj “to attach, join, harness, yoke, become one”. It thinks of our body and the environment as one organic system that we can sense and control. If virtual reality is still exploring the stage 1 of body literacy, yoga is practicing stage 1(identify sensations)and stage 2(internal body attention) to achieve stage 3 (sustain and appraise body awareness).
The lack of full body literacy in virtual reality might not be a completely bad thing. It provides a huge freedom for designers and creators to break the conventional, explore new expressions of body sensation and thus better assist mindfulness practices. Therefore, given the current technical constraints in virtual reality, we want to design a VR experience to help players to internalize the mindful body awareness through yoga practices.
I am an amateur yoga practitioner, and both of my group mates has little experience with yoga, so we went to a local yoga class to have some first-person experience with yoga with the idea of body awareness in mind. We also talked to the instructor Emily to learn about the things to be aware of when doing yoga.
The first thing she emphasized is breathing — how a slow deep breathing helps people move from pose to pose easily and alleviate muscle tension and pain in some poses.
Guidance is another important aspect that help create immersion. From the content of the instructions to the voice of the instructors, an unclear and coarse audio guidance might interrupt the flow of the practice. Visual feedback such as mirror and instructor’s hand pointing are also used for the students to check their poses. An illustrative instruction can help students quickly find the right way to activate muscles (e.g. “feel yourself like a tree, your hands reach high to the sky and and feet root deep into the ground”).
There are already several attempts in the market to explore the realm of mindfulness and interoceptive exercise in VR.
TRIPP is one of the few games in VR game store dedicated to mindfulness practice. Through a series of intriguing and psychedelic visuals and audio instructions, it takes players onto a mindfulness journey with breathing and attention exercises through visual guidance. It uses a rather game approach to meditation and as we tested the game, we summarized several observations -
- completely controller-less: player selects through gazing at the buttons, giving players more focus to the experience;
- breathing guide is reflected through the ambience change in the environment;
- can be stressful to finish the ‘tasks’ of the game;
- floating in virtual space while sitting stationary can be disoriented, “you want to trust your yoga mat”.
- TAI CHI
Tai Chi is an exercise game that teaches Tai-Chi by asking players to follow the spheres to move along the trail. There are also two avatars exemplifying the actions in front of the player to make sure players can see the pose.
- the sphere guides give very small targets to follow, which makes it hard for players to follow it;
- A large variety of 2d sky boxes give a lot of visual distraction;
- Pretty good sideway accuracy;
- Players might just blindly follows the trail but not really using their muscles to exercise;
The game is an interesting exploration of interoceptive exercises but the essence of interoceptive exercises gets lost while focusing solely on playability.
We recognized that in order to design an environment that covers all of the issues we mentioned above, we would need to develop a system to understand how each element is going to work with each other. Therefore, we summarized our findings into the four following guidelines —
We split up the large puzzle into small components and make sure each part works well individually before merging things together.
Breathing instruction is an important part of the verbal instruction of yoga to increase the awareness of the air flow in your body. One of the common feedback during our first phase of yoga play testing was that people were busy with minding their postures and therefore ignored breathing instructions. In order to unload the cognitive information processing, we decided to use the virtual environment to increase the awareness of breathing.
To detect breathing, we decided to use the internal speaker in Oculus Quest to detect people’s inhale and exhale.
- Virtual —
We created two environments (bright and dark) to understand what kind of lighting environment can help players focus on body control and sensation.
After playtesting, we found that both of the initial iterations are too abstract for players to feel comfortable and relaxing in the space. Neither complete darkness nor infinite horizon helps players establish trust and presence in the environment. Thus we modified the environment to introduce more familiarity to the scene.
- Physical —
Since Oculus Quest doesn’t provide any feet tracking, but the feet movement is essential for body orientation and stabilization. We decided to use physical environment to inform the players the feet movement. Through sectioning the mat into 15 sections, we placed rods underneath the mat to indicate feet direction when landing the feet on corresponded part of the mat.
- Avatar +interface
Our goal is to minimize the distraction of interface. However, when it comes to lack of body feedback (such as a mirror image of player’s body), some sort of animated avatar instruction would be very beneficial. Below are rough sketches of the interface. We tried to keep only one or two 2D UI element in the viewer.
As we playtested on other people, we observed that players tend to look around when they first enter the environment, without focusing on the UI instruction. Therefore, we first giving player a few seconds to look around and adapt, and as we dim the environment, player’s attention would gradually be guided to the moon and UI due to the visual contrast.
- Visual Indicator (Ongoing)
Stretch Poses are common in yoga and requires more than limb extension. It requires activation of certain muscles in order to relax some other. When focus is brought to the correct activated muscles, the sensation of stretching will be more palpable. To aid this mental process, we are looking at rayamrching technique and how applying it on tracked hands can help to emphasize the sensation of pulling and stretching.