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Deep is a virtual reality 'game' that wants to teach you how to breathe

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"Everything you're going to see here is very, very early."

Game designer Owen Harris didn't expect other people to be interested in his game-experience-therapy tool Deep. It began as more of an experiment about deep breathing. "The idea is that it's better for us to get into the habit of breathing slowly and deeply into our diaphragm, rather than quickly and shallowly into our chest."

He told me this while strapping an interesting-looking device around my midsection.

deep 2 controller

Deep is played inside virtual reality, and in the demo I played there's a white circle in the middle of your view. When you breathe in, the circle grows bigger. Breathe out, and it contracts again. A bit of conductive wool on the controller senses your body moving as you breathe.

I found myself inside a sort of underwater environment, with simple polygons and deep colors, surrounded by schools of swimming fish and other interesting things to look at.

I breathed in deeply. And began to float.

Better living through breathing

"Maybe it might be a commercial product. Maybe it will be an art piece. That's one of the questions we want to answer this week," Harris said.

"Ideally, it will be both, game designer Niki Smit continued. The game is played completely by breathing and looking around; you aren't required to hit any buttons, and all the feedback so far is aesthetic. They're interested in the potential for healthcare, or a game that anyone can play, regardless of ability or mobility limitations.

It took a while to get the controller tightened correctly, and a few aspects of the game had to be adjusted for my size and body type so it would feel me breathing. "Don't push it too hard," Harris warned me. "Just take it easy."

I found myself thinking about how I was breathing, and when I finally got used to bringing in a deep breath, the game rewarded me by allowing me to float. I breathed out, and gently moved toward the ground. I slid off the side of a cliff at one point, and instead of being scared I merely took a deep breath and held it, allowing me to slowly move over the landscape in midair.

I breathed in deeply. And began to float.

The two men have many ideas for the game and controller. You could set up a track where you breathe in and out to fly up and down and move through hoops. By doing so you could learn how to control your breathing, to breathe deeply and slowly, and in that way you could control your mood. There were a few moments during my demo where I simply breathed, in and out, and moved across the beautiful landscape. It was calming, and I began to experience the sense of peace I brushed against in my other experiments in meditation.

Being mindful of your body and your breathing is one of the core tenets of meditation, and by doing so you'll often find yourself calmer, more centered and more in control of your emotions. It's also a very hard habit to begin, but Deep wants to make the act of meditation and breathing exercises interesting and even fun.

This is therapy and relaxation as game design, with the idea being that if you can find a way to make certain kinds of breathing feel good in the game and reward you with movement and interesting things to see, people will learn how to relax and breathe in a way that helps their state of mind. It's a fascinating goal, and they're upfront about this being early days, but for me, for a few minutes, it worked.