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Tuesday, 23 October, 2001, 08:11 GMT 09:11 UK
Innerspace meets cyberspace
Tracey Logan enjoys VR meditation
Tracey enjoys a VR sunrise and birds squawking
By the BBC's Go Digital presenter Tracey Logan

Meditation is a tough skill to learn, especially when you're anxious or stressed.

But at Georgia Tech in the United States, Professor Larry Hodges believes virtual reality could deliver calm and inner peace more effectively than the traditional yoga mat and sandalwood joss stick.

If you find it hard to visualise calming images at the critical moment, then meditating in someone else's virtual reality may be for you.

The Georgia Tech team point to numerous medical studies demonstrating the benefits of relaxation techniques in a variety of chronic medical conditions, from hypertension and asthma to anxiety disorders and depression.

Run off my feet at the recent Siggraph computer graphics convention in Los Angeles, I felt in need of a bit of calm.

Wired for observation

Being strapped into a chair and wearing a VR headset resembling an oversized motorcycle crash helmet seemed a bit claustrophobic at first.

Larry Hodges shows his VR meditation technique
Larry Hodges [left]: Stresses benefits of VR meditation
Then, when Professor Hodges strapped breathing and perspiration sensors to my fingers and chest I was tempted to bolt for the door.

But he reassured me that, by monitoring my body's basic responses during the VR meditation session, he could quickly rescue me if I started to get anxious. So I relaxed.

There is one thing you need to know about reporters. We're always thinking of the next question to ask our interviewees.

It was all I could do to silence the inner voice that kept giving me ideas for good points to raise with Professor Hodges and just, well, meditate.

But a VR woman's calming voice inside my headset helped a lot as she prepared me for what was to come with an instruction to sit comfortably and try to breathe deeply.

Muscle relaxation exercises only deepened the sense of calm, though I never completely forgot that interview to follow

Ahead of me, a VR sunrise appeared and, if I remember rightly, sea birds squawked in the distance. It was not long before I was back on that dream holiday in St Lucia. Diane Gromala, the artist behind the VR imagery, had done her job well.

Muscle relaxation exercises only deepened the sense of calm, though I never completely forgot that interview to follow.

Little did I know that throughout the session, a computer graph was being plotted that would give away those innermost thoughts.

The verdict

About 10 minutes later I was disconnected from this dream world and faced with my printout.

The graphs traced a slow but steady decline in breathing and sweating over time, signalling my growing relaxation, which was suddenly interrupted by a surge in activity around those complicated muscle relaxation exercises.

meditation mockup
Is this the future of meditation?
Awoken from my dreamy state, this was when I remembered the need to think up interview questions and the graph shows a distinct lack of serenity at this point.

But the limb clenching and shaking over, the calming decline in brain activity returned.

Now you might think it is overkill to apply such high technology to the simple practice of meditation. And there is no doubt that the time-honoured methods are free and universally available, whereas no more than a tiny minority have access to this kind of technology.

But I would not be surprised if there was a market for drop-in VR meditation booths in hospitals and trendy health centres, where those with just enough time between meetings or people unable to relax alone might benefit.

Such people would, of course, need to be convinced of the value of taking time out from their worldly worries to experience a bit of peace and quiet.

That's not something the overstressed or anxious are particularly good at.

VR meditation
The system welcomes you
The sounds of meditation
Close you eyes and visualise calming images
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