Prof. Bernhard Hommel and an interdisciplinary research team at the Universities of Leiden and Prague have been awarded funding from Technology Agency-Czech Republic to develop Virtual Reality that would facilitate effective Mindfulness training.
Virtual Reality beyond gaming
Growing enthusiasm for scalable e-health tools, together with the increasingly more affordable Virtual Reality (VR) systems has provided a promising opportunity for innovation. Besides its well-known use in the world of entertainment, VR technology has been applied to many different settings, such as in healthcare or education. Indeed, VR technologies are now successfully being used in many therapies, especially those that rely on exposure or mental imagery such as the treatment of phobia or OCD.
But what about mindfulness traning? Mindfulness originated from Budhist meditation tradition and quickly became a mainstreem technique used to improve focus, induce relaxation, and cope with stress. Mindfulness training is an active psychological process of bringing one's attention to experiences occurring in the present moment. One of the common techniques is to try to bring one’s attention back to breathing every time the mind starts wondering. Yet, keeping the focus on one’s own breath without mind wondering is very dificult for those who experience stress and are new to meditation practice. This is where VR can come in useful as due to it’s immersiveness can enhance patient’s engagement. However, while the majority of existing VR meditation apps offer a relaxing tour through an aesthetically pleasing environment, they fail to capture the attentional training which is the essence of mindfulness.
In collaborative effort among researchers at Leiden University, clinicians at National Institute of Mental Health in Prague (NUDZ) and industry partners (Xlab.cz) we aim to improve on existing VR-mindfulness games by implementing a biofeedback to monitor and aid emotional responses and psychophysiological states during training. In order to prototype this technology as an optimal cognitive-affective tool, extensive research is required at every stage of the product development. In the end, the VR games' shell will be designed in accordance with scientific literature in order to facilitate both Focused Attention and Open Monitoring meditation. These meditation techniques require a very different level of awareness and attentional training and are therefore likely to be suitable for the distinct clinical population. Thanks to the application of two respiratory belts and ECG technology coupled with VR, breathing alone will become a very immersive experience. The respiratory belts will allow us to measure thoracic and abdominal expansion, and detect if the breathing method is correct and provide further feedback to the user. The user will also be able to observe changes in their own heart beat coupled with changes in their breathing technique. Furthermore, the present project aims at motivating and educating users by providing them with feedback on their progress over time, a feature that appears to be absent from the other applications. Lastly, in comparison to existing games and games under development, our application will be based on scientific evidence and result in randomized control study to assess its effectiveness. Essentially, we hope to validate this technology for use in clinical setting.