Changing a landscape with the power of your mind is hugely relaxing

Looking over the landscape I could see an old tree standing frozen and seemingly dead, its branches coated with icy rime. Around it, mossy grass and small rocks lay beneath a coating of snow and in the distance glistening waterfalls tumbled down the sides of whitened mountains. It looked like the wilds of Ireland in wintertime, but the view existed only in my phone. My task, using a handheld biosensor called PIP, was to bring summer to this deeply cold outdoor scene by the powers of mental relaxation.

The device – the brainchild of developer Daragh McDonnell, who started work on it in 2004 at Media Lab Europe (the ill-fated European partner of the MIT Media Lab) – connects to your phone or tablet via bluetooth and works by sensing electrical changes at the surface of the skin which indicate stress levels. This data is then passed by Bluetooth into The Loom, a mobile app that uses biofeedback to help you measure, understand and manage your stress levels.

The more you relax, the faster the landscape moves from winter to summer on your phone or tablet. In my case, this process took between five and nine minutes, but a friend managed the transformation in as little as two.

Winter looms. (PIP)

To change the scene before me, I concentrated on visualising warm air around the trunk of the tree. Slowly it started to thaw. Fresh moss appeared at its base, then stones, grass, and tiny mountain flowers. A nearby stream melted into life and flowed again. And as the mountains softened and the sky relaxed from grey to blue, the tree finally burst into bloom, displaying bright leaves and creamy petals. I had revived a frozen world using only the power of thought and in the process my heart rate slowed and I felt more calm.

The Loom in Summer (PIP)

Environmental psychologists know that images of nature can relax us and reduce stress. As long ago as 1971, a research project involving patients recovering from gall bladder surgery showed that those placed in a ward with a window view of some fairly ordinary trees required less pain relief and recovered faster than similar patients in a ward where the windows looked out onto brick walls. This experiment has since been repeated in offices, schools, and prisons, with similar results.

The app takes a departure from the usual terrain of digital well-being – Californian beaches and mountain ranges – favoured by an industry where style is lead by US West Coast culture. Instead the “loomscape” I experienced was made up of photographs taken in different parts of Ireland. So if you’ve visited Massey’s Wood, Glen of the Downs, Devil’s Glen and Tomie’s Wood in County Wicklow, or Connemara in the west of Ireland, you might recognise some of the slivers of their verdant panoramas which have been woven together to create this fictional game-like landscape.

PIP has also worked on other apps linked to the power of relaxation such as Relax and Race where your stress level is used to determine your speed in the race – the more you relax, the faster you go. And new loomscapes are in the works for 2015.

Both PIP and Relax and Race use games technology to promote new kinds of well-being and stress reduction. There are many apps, of course, that promote relaxation as an end in itself or as insomnia and meditation aids and training. And there is an increasing amount of evidence that some video games have a relaxing effect, but this biosensor may be the first instance of the player entering into an active feedback loop and causing changes to the game itself. It would be interesting to see how far this goes in the future.

This article was first published in my column at The Conversation. Read the original.

Social network Tsū opts for green – they’re in the right spectrum for connectedness

The new social network, Tsū, is banded with a clear and vivid green. Its hue is reminiscent of aspects of nature: the sea in winter, the stripes on certain kinds of leaves, the colour of chrysanthemums and orchids.

In contrast to the dull office blue of Facebook, the icy whiteness of Google+, and the foggy grey of Ello, Tsū offers users a warm and vibrant colour scheme which is soft on the eyes and somehow friendlier.

Can a simple design choice make so much difference to the attractiveness of a social network site? It seems that the biggest sites go for blue: Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram and Foursquare all favour it. And that choice is reflected in a general worldwide preference in all kinds of situations. Blue connotes intelligence, communication, trust, efficiency, duty, and logic, giving an overall sense of competence and security. It makes for a pretty safe choice.

Red however, is seen as arousing, exciting, and stimulating. It’s generally associated with activity, strength, and being up-to-date. Google+, YouTube, and Pinterest all feature red teamed with white (sincerity, purity, cleanness, simplicity, hygiene, clarity, peace, and happiness).

The only established social network coloured green is Vine where users share videos for six seconds or less in a short-lived, always-on culture of almost organic constant flux. But now there’s Tsū, a lighter and slightly bluer green than Vine, and offering a very different kind of experience.

Continue reading Social network Tsū opts for green – they’re in the right spectrum for connectedness in my column at The Conversation.

Join Tsū via my shortcode.

@robinince has taken Technobiophilia on tour with him, but where is it now?

Robin Ince

Google Alerts are the digital equivalent of your ears burning when someone’s talking about you. They’re not very reliable, it’s true, but when an alert does penetrate the fog of cyberspace with news that you’re part of someone else’s day it’s always worth following it up.

So it was that Google tipped me off I’d been mentioned in Robin Ince‘s blog. I met Robin last year when he hosted a panel I was on at Nesta’s Futurefest event. He was curious about Technobiophilia so it’s great to see that he’s taken the book with him this autumn while he’s on tour around the UK.

So what does he think of it? Google brought me only one alert but he’s mentioned the book in three blog posts so far so it can’t be in the bin yet.  He started off by trying to use it to get to sleep (!), then picked it up again a couple of days later on a train, and a few days after that it accompanied him home from Oslo. Then I lost sight of it.

Has he still got it? Did it totally send him to sleep in the end? As he travels from gig to gig, I’ll keep an eye out for further appearances via Google’s inconsistent whispers…

Apple’s Yosemite demonstrates the technobiophilic sublime

Yosemite (

According to writer and environmentalist Wallace Stegner, wilderness is both ‘an opportunity and an idea’.[1]

With the release of OS X 10.10 Yosemite, Apple adopts one of the most famous wilderness areas in the United States, the gloriously wild Yosemite National Park, as a totem of its own ideology. And it’s no coincidence that the stunning mountain images which accompany it engender a sense of deep awe.

Apple is deliberately connecting us with the technobiophilic sublime.

As I wrote last year in ‘Technobiophilia: nature and cyberspace’, the vastness of the internet, both visible and invisible, can trigger a powerful sense of the sublime. I described how technology historian David Nye explained that eighteenth century philosopher Edmund Burke  ‘established an absolute contrast between the beautiful, which inspired feelings of tenderness and affection, and the sublime, which grew out of an ecstasy of terror that filled the mind completely’[2].

Before Burke, the notion of the sublime was connected with alchemy, but as the ideal of scientific objectivity grew into the foreground it came to be seen as part of the Enlightenment project of defining reason. And as the New World was opened up, the stunning raw landscapes of America seemed made for the expression of the sublime. Said Nye, ‘to experience the sublime was to awaken to a new vision of a changing universe.’

This changing universe, presumably, is the vision Apple wants us to buy into as we scale the dizzy heights of its own digital Yosemite, yet another new growth in the company’s much-vaunted ‘ecosystem’.

[1] Stegner, Wallace. Wilderness Letter, written to the Outdoor Recreation Resources Review Commission. 1969.
[2] Nye, David E. American Technological Sublime. Cambridge: MIT, 1994.

Six wearables and apps to improve health and happiness



The age of the wearable is fast upon us, and many of the new products we’re going to see in the next 12 months will be all about health and happiness. The New York Times recently predicted that soon some wearables will seamlessly blend in by looking like a skin-coloured sticking plasters and even perhaps become fashion items. There are also lots of new apps in this area too.

I’ll be trying some out over the next few months but here are six that have come across my desk: one hand-held, two wearables and three apps that can help you calm down, straighten up, and take a deep breath.

Continue reading Six wearables and apps to improve health and happiness in my column at The Conversation.

Technobiophilia Hackathon – apps and wearables connecting you to nature

sesi-cultura-digital-2014-header (1)I’ve been hoping that someone would come up with a technobiophilia app or, even better, a wearable. Something to enhance our digital lives by connecting us to nature, or sharpen the pleasure of the outdoors by connecting us to the internet. Something that clearly demonstrates the level of well-being to be gained from a technobiophilic lifestyle. And how about applying technobiophilic design to software and hardware? More natural materials and colours please!

With luck my wish will be answered later this month at SESI Cultura Digital in Rio de Janeiro.

I’ve been invited to set two design challenges for the Hackathon part of the event, taking place on Thursday 23rd October 2014. It’s a fantastic opportunity to apply my research to real-life problems and I’m very excited to see what participants come up with!

The brief for the Hackathon Challenge on the website is in Portuguese but I’ve posted the English version in the Technobiophilic Design section of my website. If you can’t be in Rio for the competition, but you’d like to have a go at developing something in response to the challenge, do get in touch.

You can follow the Hackathon action on Facebook and on Twitter via hashtag #scd2014 (unfortunately in the UK this matches the tag for a very popular TV show, so be warned!).

(Thanks to Amber Thomas for her invaluable help in designing the challenge)

‘Another Ocean’, the internet and the sea in Orion Magazine

orionThis month I have a short essay, ‘Another Ocean’, in Orion, a long-established and beautifully-produced American magazine about nature and the environment. I’m very grateful to the editors for taking a chance on a piece about the internet and the sea because I realize that it’s a synergy which may not sit comfortably with some readers. I do hope they like it though.

Unfortunately ‘Another Ocean’ is in the paid-for section of the magazine but perhaps that’s a good opportunity to sign up for a free trial issue! I’ve been reading it for years and always enjoy the great writing and gorgeous images.