Outside of the VR bubble, that space where those of us following the development of VR hang out, when you meet someone who knows what VR is they tend to think that it is for video games. They are partially right, of course. And for that I’m thankful. But VR can be more than just games. With apps like AltSpace, ConVRge, Oculus Social, et al. there are the beginnings of what I hope will become a very active social aspect of VR. But what about when you don’t want to play a game and you aren’t feeling overly social? Everyone needs a little relaxation time and apps like Zen Zone are there to show us that this most versatile of mediums can enhance even our down time.
Everyone needs a little relaxation time and apps like Zen Zone are there to show us that this most versatile of mediums can enhance even our relaxation time.
Zen Zone is not really about entertainment. You’re not likely going to pop into it when you’re bored and have a few minutes to kill. Instead you will want to have Zen Zone around at the end of a long day or if you’re feeling particularly stressed out. It has three calming modes to choose from. One is a guided visualization, one is a zen garden and one is a guided breathing exercise. All of them are quite relaxing and worth checking out.
Before talking about the main content areas of the app it’s worth mentioning that Zen Zone respects the mood you’re in for the entire experience. The title screen has you floating above a lake at sunset with water shimmering below you and soothing music playing in the background. The cursor you use to select which mode you want to enter is a trail of particles and you can even have it dip into the lake, leaving ripples in the water. Also, if you are in one of the relaxation areas and you decide that you want to back out, you can press the back button and the scene will fade slowly before the title screen fades in. There are no abrupt transitions that will harsh your mellow. There is only on thing that I find, not necessarily bad, but strange, and that is the fade in to the zen garden. There is a weird cross hatch fade transition that doesn’t seem to be the same in both eyes and it looks a bit off.
The first area I tried out was the Zen Garden. It’s the most game-like area in the experience in that you get to interact with some of the objects in in the garden. You can pick up the stones and place them almost anywhere in the sand and then you can use the rake to draw paths around the rocks and make patterns in the sand. I was particularly impressed with the way the rake was controlled. Zen Zone uses gaze controls but there is something about the way the rake handles that almost made it feel like it was reading my mind. After you’re done moving the rocks and raking the sand there are several different points you can teleport to and just enjoy the scenery and the music which, throughout the experience is perfectly matched to what you are doing. It is relaxing and never fights for your attention.
Zen Zone used gaze controls but there is something about the way the rake handles that almost made it feel like it was reading my mind.
After finishing with the zen garden I moved on to the guided visualization. Back when I was in college I used to load these up on YouTube and listen to them to help me relax after hours in front of the computer writing papers or hunched over a book studying. They work well enough with just audio, but when you add not just a visual element, but an immersive, 3D, 360 degree visual element, it makes them much more effective. You start out the visualization in total blackness save for some glowing butterflies and what appear to be colourful fireflies or will-o-the-wisps. You watch this scene for a while as a soothing female voice speaks to you and eventually tells you to close your eyes. There is a part here that I’m going to skip over. The reason for that is, it was pretty powerful for me and I think if you know what it is, it might ruin it for you. I will say this though. If she says close your eyes, close them and keep them closed until she tells you to open them.
After this part you are instructed to close your eyes again and the visualization continues in your mind for a few moments as she talks of a warming feeling beginning in your feet and working it’s way up your legs. She then tells you to open your eyes and in front of you is a wire mesh form of a man with softly glowing legs. She begins to describe the warmth moving through your body and as she does the corresponding body part starts to glow on the figure. I suppose how effective this is will be different for everyone but for me, being able to see it on the model in front of me made it easier for me to imagine it happening in my own body. In other words, it aided the experience quite a bit.
The last area is a breathing area. This one is my favourite. You have to follow the directions she gives you exactly for it to work, but the feeling is pretty incredible. It starts with a shimmering, flowing, multicoloured flower shape hovering in front of you. While you watch it flow a voice tells you what the session is going to be about and what you are supposed to do for it. Once she is done her explanation the flower disappears and she tells you to breathe in for four seconds. As you do, a particle effect forms in front of you and flows toward your mouth. It looks like you are sucking in the particles. Again, how well this works will vary from person to person, but for me it felt like I was actually breathing in something more than just air. When she tells you to breathe out its the same idea, but in reverse and this feels like exhaling on a really cold day in winter when you can see your breath. The feeling is tantalizingly close to presence. It doesn’t necessarily feel like I am there, but it sure feels like my breath is. You repeat this a few times before returning to normal breathing and the flower appears again. You loop through the cycle two more times with different breath countdowns before the guided experience ends and you can just hang out in the flower zone until you’re ready to stop.
The feeling is tantalizingly close to presence.
At the moment I have three jobs. My work day starts when I roll out of bed in the morning and often doesn’t end until I fall back into it in the evening. Since I downloaded Zen Zone I’ve used it to help me relax almost every night. Even my wife loved it and said she hoped that there would be more apps like it. I couldn’t agree more. Zen Zone is designed to help you unwind and that is exactly what it does.
Zen Zone isn’t a game, it’s a relaxation app and it’s good at what it does. There are three different areas that you can choose from and each one gives you a different way to relax; guided visualization, guided breathing and zen garden. There is very little interaction in the experience. What little there is is confined to the title screen and moving rocks and the rake and teleporting around the zen garden. Beyond that it’s all following instructions, but as long as you do as you are told, it can be a great experience with some really cool features. If you like to use technology to help you relax then for $4.99 it would be really hard to beat Zen Zone.